As we celebrate women during the month of March, preachers across the nation will proclaim messages about trailblazing women. As I reflect on the Church Fathers and their determination to canonize the Bible, I realized it was here that the positive roles women played were eliminated from the Church narrative.
Biblical women were often cast in negative shadows and used as a means of oppressing and marginalizing all women. Bad reputations and inferior positions were falsely imputed upon the female gender to reinforce structures of oppression and marginalization.
For example, Eve was used by the Church Fathers to portray women as gullible. As a result, women had a bad reputation as the cause of humanity’s downfall. Sarah, Rebecca, and Hannah were used to reinforcing the stigma of being infertile. Childbearing became the rationale for women’s existence. Queen Vashti wouldn’t obey her husband, so she became the model for what happens to disobedient wives. Rebecca coached her son into betraying his father, so mothers were seen as devious. Miriam rebelled against Moses, therefore female siblings could not be trusted. Rahab, Gomer, Mary Magdalene and the woman at the well were prostitutes, so women who accomplished significant acts of faith were watered down as being less morally acceptable.
The adulterous woman in the Gospel of John became the model for double standards. In I Corinthians, women are limited in their dress and hairstyle and if they resisted they were considered as immoral. The church under Timothy discriminated against women in leadership and silenced them. In a nutshell, women were relegated to the back of the bus or as Derrick Bell says, “relegated to the bottom of the well.”
The message was clear. These women would only lead others down paths of disobedience, deviousness, and immorality. Don’t follow them.
Even though the Church Fathers often cast Biblical women in negative shadows, we must look at them closer and see the shining lights. I bring to your attention one woman in particular: Hagar, a woman of faith who triumphanted over many trials. Hagar challenges the myths that women are ignorant, gullible, loose, incompetent and faithless.
She became a mother against her will when Sarah, playing God, conspired to use her as a surrogate. Fleeing from Sarah’s persecution, Hagar bows to the will of “the God who sees me” and returned to her mistress. Several years later, when she and her son, Ishmael, were cast out into the desert her mother’s heart cried before the Lord until God delivered. She was not the mother of the Christ, but she was a savior. She was a bondswoman, but she prayed to, was heard from, and was blessed by the same God Abraham claimed as his Father. Her prayers were so powerful they enabled her to go beyond socioeconomic and political contextual ties to experiencing life in the wilderness as a means of receiving salvation from God.
Get on the Path
Sisters, Hagar is one of our shining trailblazers and left valuable lessons for us to learn. How many of you know that “weeping may endure for the night but joy comes in the morning?” Her cry meant a change in servanthood. She was once a servant of Sarah, but became a servant of the Lord. Her cry meant a change in dependency. She once relied on Sarah to supply her with all her needs, but her faith in God caused Him to supply her with far more than she could ever imagine. She was once destitute, but became destined. She was a worrywart, but through God obtained a peace that surpassed all understanding.
Who we are now is who we are historically. We are the first woman, Eve, the mother of all living. We are Queen Vashti, bold and beautiful. We are Abigail, blessed with wisdom. We are Queen Esther, saving a nation. We are Deborah, a prophet, and judge. We are the daughters of Lot, carrying on our father’s legacies. We are Jochebed, Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca, Hannah, Bath-Sheba, Esther, Elizabeth and Mary, the powerful mothers of Moses, Isaac, Joseph, Jacob, Samuel, Solomon, David, John and Jesus. We must no longer view the lives of Biblical women through the lens of “negative shadows” cast by the Church fathers. We must open our eyes and see the “shining lights” that came before us and walk the trails they blazed.
Let me conclude with Alice Walker’s words, “And when we go in search of (women trailblazers) garden, it’s not really to learn who trampled on them or how or even why, we usually know that already. Rather, it’s to learn what (women trailblazers) planted there, what they thought as they sowed, and how they survived the blighting of so many fruits.”