These bloody verses that insist women be punished with violent death—often for perceived or imagined sexual transgressions—are usually overlooked, downplayed, skipped over, ignored. Most people like to pretend they aren’t really in the text. Especially people who claim to take the Bible literally.
Passages like these should render biblical literalism impossible. Their existence illuminates that literalists always engage in selective literalism, choosing the passages that support the arguments they want to make. And what is the rubric for selective literalism other than convenience and the maintenance of oppressive power relationships? When faced with such verses—or even passages about keeping kosher or not being around women who are menstruating—many a literalist will argue something like “that was then and this is now,” while in the very next breath (I’m talking to you, Rick Santorum, and you, Michele Bachmann) they’ll insist that homosexuality is an abomination or that women should submit to their husbands. Why? Because it’s in the Bible.Sentilles' review made me reflect on other wrathful Biblical passages about "harlots", as well as the approach of many modern Christians to prostituted women and girls.
I'm heartened by the plethora of Christian groups tacking sex trafficking, offering advocacy and outreach to trafficking victims. Efforts to help trafficking victims and raise awareness should be commended, and I for one am pleased to see Christians joining the fight.*
Still, I'm perplexed by anti-trafficking advocates who hold the Bible as the inerrant word of God, given that the Bible contains many passages demonizing prostituted women. How do Christians reconcile compassion for prostituted women and youth with reverence for a text that repeatedly uses the "harlot" as a symbol of evil and violence against the prostituted woman as a symbol of divine judgment?
- Leviticus 21:9 commands that a priest's daughter who becomes a prostitute is to be burned to death.
- The prophets repeatedly compare their corrupt nation to a prostituted woman. See Isaiah 1:21, Jeremiah 2:20, Jeremiah 3:3-6, Ezekiel 16:15-17, and Ezekiel 25-33. Isaiah 57:3 lambastes the people as "offspring of adulterers and prostitutes." In Hosea 1, the prophet Hosea marries a prostituted woman to symbolize God's bond to a disobedient nation.
- In Jeremiah 13:26-27 and Hosea 2:1-13, God's chastisement of his disobedient people is likened to a man sexually humiliating his promiscuous spouse. Similarly, Ezekiel 16:35-41 depicts God and Israel's other "lovers" sexually humiliating and physically brutalizing her.
- In Revelations 17:3-6, the tormentors of Jesus' followers are symbolized by Babylon the Great, the lavishly dressed "mother of prostitutes" drunk on the blood of God's people. In a scene fit for a snuff film,Revelations 17:16-17describes how the beast and Babylon's lovers sexually humiliate, cannibalize, and burn her.
I commend Christian organizations engaged in solid anti-trafficking work and want to see them thrive. The women and youth they have helped undoubtedly feel the same. Still, I think it would be fruitful to see more Christian voices critique and reject harmful images of prostituted women in scripture. Violence against women is abominable, and it should never be used to symbolize justice or goodness. To boot, it would be interesting to find out what prostituted women and youth think about these passages, and what impact such passages have on their own spirituality and self-esteem.
Healthy spirituality recognizes the fundamental humanity of all people, and recoils when the humanity of others is diminished. Christians (and others) who are involved in anti-trafficking work understand this well, as they labor to affirm the humanity of women and youth coerced into sexual exploitation. To combat human trafficking and affirm the dignity of its victims, there is much we need to do. We need to raise public awareness. We need to demand justice for traffickers and johns. We need to support service providers who provide advocacy and outreach to victims. We need to undermine men's demand for trafficked women and youth, and the patriarchal beliefs that undergird this demand.
Along these lines, we need to recognize the tension between compassion for trafficking victims and a belief in the Bible as inerrant. When fundamentalists dismiss disturbing Old Testament passages as “the old covenant,” it does not erase their misogyny – after all, those passages still indicate that the Biblical God endorsed misogynist ideas in the past. Readers of the Bible need to be critical of scriptural passages that ignore the human dignity of the prostituted women, caricaturing her as the quintessential symbol of idolatry and depravity. We need to reject inerrant interpretations of scripture in favor of nuanced interpretations that recognize patriarchal human influences on the text – and leave room for our common humanity.
For additional commentary, two excellent discussions of violence against women in the Bible are Joan M. Sakalas' "The Whore of Babylon Metaphor: Permission to Erase Evil?" and Renita J. Weem's Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets.
* I am not referring to right-wing voices that use dubious trafficking rhetoric to bludgeon Planned Parenthood. Nor am I referring to those who lump sex trafficking into the same moral category as behaviors they happen to dislike.