Virgins, Prostitutes, Teenage Mothers: The Bible’s Depiction of Women
by LINDSEY KERR*
Then Judah said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, “Remain a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up” — for he feared that he too would die, like his brothers. So Tamar went to live in her father’s house.
... When Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep,” she put off her widow’s garments, put on a veil, wrapped herself up, and sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. She saw that
Shelah was grown up, yet she had not been given to him in marriage. When Judah saw her, he thought her to be a prostitute, for she had covered her face. Genesis 38:11, 13-15
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”
When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. Matthew 1:18-25
One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him — that she is a sinner.” Luke 7:36-39
The Bible is not a book for the faint of heart. The Old Testament is a story of tribal people coming into an understanding of themselves, their values and the world around them. Their god is a masculine god in a violent world and the culture that grows around him is a strong patriarchy with little room for discussion of women’s rights.
I was stumped for a long time when I was asked to write the Bible study for this issue of Response. There were lots of strong female characters that came to mind — Ruth, Esther and Deborah to name a few — but upon reflection I wondered exactly what these stories said about women’s status. Who are the everyday women in the Bible? How are they viewed?
Desperate, I searched an online Old Testament for the word women. I glanced at the verse contexts as I scrolled down the page and found that more often than not the verses that included the word women had to do with a woman’s status as a virgin. I flipped through the New Testament and found the phrase “tax collectors and prostitutes.” I thought back to my Catholic education and two most famous women in the Bible — Mary, the Mother of God and Mary Magdalene. Virgin mother. Prostitute. These two were the perfect woman and the sinner.
Of course, these women were really shades of gray, as all women — and men — are. Each woman is a complex individual whose existence is more than her sexuality and whose worth cannot be determined by a skewed view of purity. But women come with this history of being treated like property, their value based on their intact virginity and obedience. And it’s still a part of who we are today.
Forced into prostitution
Read Genesis 38
The duty of brother-in-law was a tradition often practiced in the ancient world. Not only did it provide the deceased brother with an offspring to carry on his name, but it also gave the widow a link to her in-laws and someone to care for her in her old age.
In this story, Tamar is only fighting for what is her right, offspring and a release from her debt to her late husband. When it’s discovered that she’s pregnant, Judah is ready to have her put to death, even though he’s wronged her by withholding his youngest son. It’s not until he’s shown proof in front of the community of his indiscretion that he relents. Who does society consider at fault in this story? Is Judah punished by society for visiting a prostitute? Is he punished for wronging his daughter-in-law?
God strikes down two of Judah’s sons. Is it mentioned that God takes any action against Judah? What’s another word for a woman who works as a prostitute? What’s a word for a man who visits a prostitute? Compare these words.
Millions of women and children are forced into prostitution every year by poverty, violence or human trafficking. Why is this something difficult to talk about? Why is it easier to blame the person working in the sex industry for their situation rather than society?
Mother of God: Unwed teenager
Read Matthew 1:18-25
Christ comes into the world through a disenfranchised woman. He was born to an unwed teenage mother whose husband Joseph would have divorced her quietly if not for God speaking to him in a dream. What would it have meant for Jesus and Mary if Joseph hadn’t heeded God’s call? Answer: A life of destitution and shame. Jesus would have been an illegitimate person with no claim to a lineage or family, and Mary would have been thrown out on the street and despised by society.
The church praises Mary’s faith yet rarely mentions it was her place in society, not just her obedience to God, that put her in such a difficult position. Mary’s virginity in the nativity story is a key allusion to Christ’s divinity but at that time would have been a determination of her value as a potential wife. What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the phrase “unwed teenage mother”? In contrast, think of the last time you heard the phrase “unwed teenage father.” How would your church treat a pregnant teenager who came to services?
What if she came seeking assistance? Would you need a direct call from God to help her?
Christ the feminist?
Read Luke 7:36-50, 8:2
Christ’s treatment of women in the New Testament is nothing short of revolutionary, particularly to the Gentile world around him. The Gospels are filled with stories of Jesus curing mentally ill women and defending alleged adulteresses. I think the most profound act of Jesus toward women is his actively seeking friendship with members of the opposite sex who were neither his relative nor wife. He has women followers throughout his mission, and at his death it is women, not men, in whom he takes comfort.
He first appears resurrected to these women, the most well-known being Mary Magdalene. This Mary appears other times in various Gospels and is mentioned as an early Christian leader in a Gnostic Gospel that was not included in the
Christian Canon. Although it is a common held belief that Mary Magdalene was a reformed prostitute, there is little to support this claim in the Bible. Many scholars have claimed that this theory was developed by Pope Gregory the Great in A.D. 591.
Where Jesus led, the church was not ready to follow.
After reading both passages from Luke, do you see discrepancies in the idea of Mary Magdalene being a prostitute? Why would the early church want to discount Mary Magdalene’s integrity? What are common stereotypes of female politicians or business leaders? What words are associated with powerful women? Powerful men?
Still not ready to follow
We’re not so far removed. Our media is saturated with women depicted and used as sexual objects. Our vocabulary is full of insults specifically for sexually promiscuous females, with no real equivalent for men. We like to think the church is above all of this. The United Methodist Church has women in its pulpits and even more in its seminaries. United Methodist Women is a powerful organization reaching all over the world.
But in some ways we’re no better than the early church. Those of us who belong to the church know exploitation of women sometimes happens, even within our own United Methodist congregations and offices. Those who work in the corporate world know women are mistreated, especially in male dominated boardrooms, factories and job sites.
What is a woman’s place in the church today? Twenty years ago? Fifty years ago? How is the church reaching out to disenfranchised women in the United States and around the world? How does your congregation reach out to the “least of these” in your community? How does it advertise that it is a place where women experience equality?
Single mothers, sex workers and disenfranchised women are the “least of these” Christ calls us to serve. As Christians, particularly those of us who are Christian women, we can’t ignore that our chauvinist history is part of who we are. The church is built on this imperfect story by imperfect men who, even in proclaiming the Gospel, were threatened by its implications. To deny this is to invalidate the struggle of the women who fought for their place in any of this, who gave us the place we have in the church today.