God of Our Mothers: Face to Face with Powerful Women of the Old Testament

God of Our Mothers: Face to Face with Powerful Women of the Old Testament

by M. R. Ritley

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Here’s a new kind of Bible study: a lively, deep, personal look at some of the Old Testament’s most powerful—and intriguing—women. From Sarah, who was unafraid to nudge God into action; to Hagar, whose courage and passion founded a whole nation; to Judith, woman and warrior whose faith saved God’s people, readers will examine the stories


Here’s a new kind of Bible study: a lively, deep, personal look at some of the Old Testament’s most powerful—and intriguing—women. From Sarah, who was unafraid to nudge God into action; to Hagar, whose courage and passion founded a whole nation; to Judith, woman and warrior whose faith saved God’s people, readers will examine the stories of biblical women up close. As they to read between the lines, readers will learn to use Bible stories to throw light on the stories of their own lives. Each chapter will include questions for discussion and reflection, making this an ideal parish study book, or the perfect volume for Lenten meditation.

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Face to Face with the Powerful Women of the Old Testament


Church Publishing Incorporated

Copyright © 2006 M. R. Ritley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8192-2216-9



Still Friends with God: The Eve No One Remembers

The Patchwork Bible

There was a time when this part of the chapter probably wouldn't have been necessary—or maybe even possible. If you were raised the way most of us were, the Bible was simply the Bible, that book that sat on the shelf in the parlor, or on the lectern at the parish church. Your granddad (like mine) may have read a chapter of it aloud every morning, and the expert, whether priest or minister, preached about it on Sunday, but either way, it was simply the Bible, and that was that. Mostly, you were simply expected to listen up.

I do recall having to memorize large chunks of it in Sunday School, and earning a colorful little sticker for every verse I managed to recite back. Since this was in the days before most folks knew what the word "relevance" meant, and I had a pretty good memory, I can't recall being too upset at not understanding a great deal of what I memorized. After all, kids are constantly up against things they don't understand. In a bilingual family like mine, it's hard enough sorting out which words belong in what language, much less worrying about words nobody ever said in real life anyway. Like most of my classmates, I quickly tumbled to the fact that John 11:35 was the shortest verse that would get you a sticker ("Jesus wept."), and that you wanted to stay away from books like Nehemiah, which were just jammed full of unpronounceable names. Beyond memorizing, or hearing it preached about, most of us weren't encouraged to ask too many questions about the Bible. It was there. It was itself. It was IT. And that was that.

For some of us, it came as a great shock to discover that the Bible isn't simply IT—a single book—but a whole collection of them, many decidedly user-unfriendly, and a number of them an editor's nightmare (or at least the work of some of the sloppiest editors in history). The fact is, the original writers had no idea they were creating Scripture, particularly since the idea of Scripture didn't yet exist. They wrote things down from a sincere and genuine belief that it was important to preserve these stories, rules, and insights for others, but they didn't figure what they were writing would become untouchable. Their heirs didn't have that idea, either, and set about merrily improving the text (is there a writer or editor alive who doesn't believe they can make it better?), or rewriting it to fit their own ideas of what was important to preserve. It didn't become untouchable—unrevisable—until it had been centuries in the revision, and there was no possible way on earth of reconstructing the original.

The literary smorgasbord we call the Old Testament, which contains a little something for everyone, ranges in age from oral traditions dating back at least to 2000 B.C.E. to tightly crafted literary works written just a few hundred years before Christ. It spans social, religious, and political developments from the traditions of families or clans of wandering herders and traders, to the royal archives of typical late Iron Age kingdoms in the Middle East, to the cosmopolitan world of Hellenistic Alexandria. It's the work of family storytellers, royal archivists, pious lawgivers, and rebellious visionaries. For every Isaiah, capable of poetry that lifts us to the breathtaking vision of God's awesome mercy, there's at least one earnest bureaucrat dithering over language that's specific enough to hold up in court. How all of these writings manage to coexist in a single volume is possibly the greatest miracle since the parting of the Red Sea. But it's a very human miracle, the work of countless scribes, retellers, editors, and preservers.

Eve: Shuffling—and Unshuffling—the Deck

You could say the Bible is sort of like a deck of cards, made up of different suits. The folks who put it together shuffled the cards up and called it a book. It's hard to tell what suit any Bible story comes from until you turn the cards face up and unshuffle them. Let's begin with the story of the first of our mothers, Eve. It isn't the work of a single storyteller, but at least two of them, and they tell two very different stories—neither of which is actually the one most of us expect to find when we turn to Eve's story.

Most of us think we know the story, whether we heard it in Sunday School, from Sister Mary Stanislaus, or from popular wisdom: God made Adam, and then took one of Adam's ribs and made Eve. And everything was fine in Eden, until the Devil came along, disguised as a snake, and talked Eve into sinning, which screwed up the rest of the world for all time. That's the story most of us have heard. Sound familiar?

The interesting thing is, it's not the story we can actually find in Genesis. Or perhaps I should say, there's a story in black and white in your Bible that will probably challenge what you think you know about Adam and Eve. Let me also say in advance that, even when you discover that you can't find the story you thought was there, it's remarkably hard to shake its influence. I've had students who have kept obstinately searching for the pieces they know must be there, long after it becomes apparent that they simply aren't.

So. Let me begin by pointing out that in the other two religions that share this story—Judaism and Islam—neither sees Eve as the source of evil in the world. Only in Christianity do you get that. In Islam, there's no idea of original sin. We're all born innocent, the thinking goes, and we sin only when we're old enough to understand and choose to disobey God. We can't hang it on Eve, Adam, or anyone else. In some Islamic traditions, in fact, the faithful believe that when a child is born, God and all the angels hold their breath in delight and awe: perhaps this will be the child who will never turn away from God and will never sin. I love that picture of God and the angels all agog, hoping this will be the one. It sure beats the notion of being conceived in sin and born in iniquity.

In Judaism it's the same: babies are born innocent, and children are just children. They have to learn what's good and bad, what's right and wrong, and they're not morally responsible until they're old enough to understand. Only then can they be considered to break God's laws or be capable of doing evil. So in Judaism and Islam, Eve doesn't carry the burden of introducing sin into the world. Each person is responsible for doing good or evil.

But in Christianity, something very different—and very unfortunate—happened. When the Roman Empire in the West collapsed economically and politically, most of what we call civilization went with it. That included literacy, the making and reading of books, and the functions of law and education. What remained of those things was mainly preserved and carried on in monasteries—a mixed blessing at best. It was decidedly a good thing that the literature and learning of the ancient world were preserved in some fashion. It was unfortunate that it happened to be in monasteries, because monasteries, after all, are all-male communities, and that had some peculiar effects on the way Scripture was read and interpreted.

Up till the time of the Reformation, it was common for families to dedicate young boys to the religious life at ages as young as three and four. These child oblates, as they were called, were turned over to monasteries to be raised by the monks. For the rest of their lives, they had little or no contact with women, or even ordinary family life. They may have glimpsed the village women who came to the parish mass, but these would have been mainly peasant women—illiterate, certainly not educated or refined. Or else they saw pristine images of the Virgin Mary in church, a woman who was always a virgin—as they were supposed to be, too.

In other words, real women were as unknown to them as the inhabitants of Tibet. Moreover, women represented something dangerous to the chaste monastic ideal. They were, after all, sexual (gasp!), a real threat to men who were trying to maintain an ideal of chastity. No wonder they saw women as sinister sources of temptation and evil! This is not only the idea that permeates most of later Western religious culture, but it forms the original lens through which the Church tended to read the story of Adam and Eve thereafter. Needless to say, in this crowd, Eve was operating under a distinct handicap.

Christianity had another problem with defining where sin started, and how contagious it is. If people aren't born in sin, early Christians wondered, what are the Incarnation and Crucifixion about? In other words, why was Jesus born as a human being in the first place, and why did he die on the cross? Most Christian theology starts with the assumption that Jesus was born into this world only because fallen humanity needed a savior. Suffice it to say, this didn't do Eve much good, either.

As we begin to read the text of Genesis carefully, we may notice that this theological and monastic veil is still clouding our vision, making us think we see things in the story that really aren't there. So pay attention, because much of what you learned in Sunday School about Eve simply isn't in the Bible.

Let's begin by looking at the outline of how the story is put together from at least two different sources.

God Creates the World—Twice

We begin with Genesis 1:1, where most of us are on familiar ground. "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth," and so on. Whether we're Bible readers or not, it's a line most everybody knows.

This first version of the creation we encounter in Genesis is probably quite late—it was written around the time of the Babylonian exile, only six centuries or so before the birth of Christ. During their long years of exile— from about 597 till about 539 B.C.E., several generations of Hebrews were exposed to a powerful civilization and a sophisticated public religion with large temples and impressive ceremonies.

One of the things we may notice about the first creation story in Genesis is that it almost seems written to be read in a ceremonious manner. It is not only poetic, but almost musical, like a hymn or anthem with a repeated refrain. It repeats and repeats and repeats. "God said, 'Let there be.... and there was....' God said, 'Let there be light'; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness.... And there was evening and there was morning, the first day" (Genesis 1:3–5).

Now comes the next repetition: "And God said, 'Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.... God called the dome Sky. And there was evening, and there was morning, the second day" (Genesis 1:6–8).

This is pretty sophisticated imagery, not the work of a primitive storyteller. This is a poet at work. "Then God said, "Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants.... And there was evening and there was morning, the third day." (Genesis 1:11,13)

By this time, even if we've never heard this before, we know what to expect—just like little kids listening to a bedtime story. By the second repetition of "... then I'll huff and I'll puff ..." the kids can already shout, "... and I'll How your house down!" And how they love doing it, too! Because, in the simplest way, it means they own the story now.

In this creation story, something similar happens, and it's masterful storytelling. Most Hebrew people didn't have the written text in front of them, but after a few repetitions, they had a familiarity that assented to a line like "... and there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day." It's how we come to own texts.

This isn't a primitive story. It's a theologically sophisticated literary work; God is bringing things into being by simply speaking, by the power of the word alone: "Let there be!" "And there was!"

And God said, "Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night."... God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars.... And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day. (Genesis 1:14–9)

Keep in mind that the sun and the moon are the primary deities in Babylon, above all the others gods and goddesses. With a mere flick of the wrist, the writer of Genesis has just made all those other gods subordinate to the God of Israel. It's remarkable to see a conquered culture asserting itself and saying, "But our God created the Babylonians' gods. Our God is above them."

So creation continues along in this way, all the plants and animals are brought forth, until we get to Genesis 1:26:

Then God. said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26–7)

Notice that there is no gap between the creation of male and female. The first time humankind is spoken of, it's as "them," not "him"—a simultaneous creation of male and female, both in the image and likeness of God. No mention of ribs at all.

So all is created, and on the seventh day, God rests, and there's a nice little coda. Look at Genesis 2:4: "These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created."

It's right there, at the end of that phrase, "when they were created," that the editor of Genesis changes from one version of the creation to another version. The editor doesn't pick up this first strand again until Genesis 5:1. If you skip ahead to it, you'll see that it's simply a continuation:

This is the list of the descendants of Adam. When God created humankind, he made them in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them "humankind" when they were created. (Genesis 5:1—2)

What intervenes between Genesis 2:4 and Genesis 5:1 is the second version of creation. You can see at once how much more primitive it is.

The Mud-Pie Version of Creation

Creation: The Sequel begins at the second part of verse 4, "in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up" (Genesis 2:4—5). We've already skipped over some of the days of creation, where God made the plants and fields, and gone back to a more primitive version.

... [F]or the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground—then the LORD God formed Man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. (Genesis 2:5–7)

It's not only much more primitive than the earlier part of Genesis, it's much more typically Middle Eastern. Humanity is created as a kind of little mud pie. That's where the name Adam comes from—the root word adamah, means earth, making the first man the "Earthly One"—Dirt-Man, if you like. He doesn't really have a name yet when God creates a garden and puts the Earthly One in it.

Now at last all the plants spring up, and the river comes out of Eden. "The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it," as if God has just created the first maintenance staff (Genesis 2:15).

Nothing here about the image and likeness of God. This account is simpler and more direct: "Here's your hoe and rake—get to work" This version of creation is pretty much the same as the Sumerian, Akkadian, and Babylonian versions of creation.

In the Sumerian version, for example, the younger gods and older gods are having family problems—the noisy younger gods give the elder gods a headache. So they create the earth as a kind of getaway—a place where they can party without upsetting the older folks. And when they get there, they create human beings to take care of it for them, like a janitorial staff. Not so different from the second version of creation in the Hebrew Bible.

Meanwhile, back to Genesis.

And the Lord God commanded the man, "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die." (Genesis 2:16–7)

Notice that God doesn't give that command to Eve—she didn't even exist yet in this story. God has some other business to take care of first

Then the Lord God said, "It is not good that the man should lie alone; I will make him a helper as his partner" So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air. (Genesis 2:18–9)

Notice that God doesn't just create woman. He starts out making giraffes and aardvarks and platypuses and warthogs and ducks, "and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name" (Genesis 2:19).

So God makes a cow, and takes it to Adam, and, playing the good matchmaker, says, "Here, Adam! Just look at her! Isn't she beautiful? Isn't she great? Is she the one?" And Adam says, "Oh, yeah, that's a cow. And yeah, it's a very nice cow, God, but I don't know, somehow she just doesn't turn me on." So then God creates a kangaroo, and comes to Adam to see what he'll call her, "Honey-Sweetie-Chickie-Poochie-Pie" or "Maxine," and he says, "Now, this one is really special. Isn't she wonderful—what do you think of her?' And Adam says, "Oh, yeah, sure, Boss, that's a kangaroo, but ... well, gee, I'm afraid she's just not my type."

"The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner" (Genesis 2:20). This goes on and on through all the animals—none of whom suit Adam. (In this version, God's learning curve appears to be a bit on the steep side, too.)

So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken" (Genesis 2:21—23)

This story is close to Middle Eastern creation myths, too. Among the Babylonians, a war breaks out between the elder and younger gods. The younger gods axe led by Marduk, the elder gods by Tiamat (Chaos), who leads an alliance of gods and dwarfs. When Marduk defeats Tiamat, he takes her body and cuts it in half, making the upper half the heavens, and the lower half the earth. He then takes a bone of his defeated enemy—Mummu the Dwarf, as I recall—and encases it in a coating of mud, which he then breathes on to give it life. It becomes the first human being. Sound familiar?

Excerpted from GOD OF OUR MOTHERS by M. R. RITLEY. Copyright © 2006 by M. R. Ritley. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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