(This is a continuation of a series that began here).
Fairness had always mattered to me as a child. I was about 9 or 10 when I drafted a constitution and submitted it to my parents, because I felt we could use more justice in our household. Once, to convince my parents about something, I recruited my younger sister to help me make placards and stage a peaceful protest in our living room. I was the child that constantly asked “why” about everything. I needed rationale, long before I knew what the word meant. This is why so much of what I saw (and didn’t see) written about women in the Torah troubled me. Little of it seemed reasonable or fair.
For example, under Mosaic laws, a woman who was not a virgin on her wedding night—the proof of which was a blood stained bed sheet—was to be stoned to death (see Deuteronomy 22:13-21). I knew enough about biology to know that not every woman sheds blood the first time she has sex for a variety of reasons, and I wondered how many women had been erroneously accused and killed under these laws. Moreover, no virginity requirements were listed for men. It seemed to me that women in Biblical eras were nothing more than property, deriving value from their bride price, and their ability to bear sons. Wives who couldn’t have sons, could require their slaves to birth children on their behalf. My heart ached for the Bible’s slave women—women like Bilhah and Zilphah—whose cursory Biblical mentions came from birthing children they had no claim to. A widowed women who had not birthed sons for her husband, was obligated to marry her brother-in-law (see Deuteronomy 25: 5). A man displeased with his wife could divorce her at will (see Deuteronomy 24: 1), but no similar rights were listed for women. Still, marriage was probably a better bet for women under Mosaic laws, because fathers could legally sell their unmarried daughters to pay off debts (see Exodus 21:7). In her book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Rachel Held Evans writes: “I have come to regard with some suspicion those who claim that the Bible never troubles them. I can only assume they haven’t actually read it.” Indeed.
The stories of Jesus always did bring me hope. I had learned about Jesus my whole life, acted out his stories in church holiday plays, and knew many of his words by heart. Alas, one is only 4 books deep in the New Testament (called the gospels), when the plot thickens and Jesus leaves the cast. Shortly after, an apostle called Paul shows up and tells women to shut up: “Women should be silent during the church meetings. It is not proper for them to speak… If they have any questions, they should ask their husbands at home” (1 Corinthians 14: 34-35). Oh, how the man worked my nerves. I would have ignored him, except he is pretty hard to ignore: Paul is believed to have written at least 13 of the New Testament’s 27 books (aka the Pauline epistles). I was probably about 11 years old when I prayed: "Dear God, I can’t wait to come to heaven and meet Paul. I have words for him!”
And yet, I found myself falling in love with the Bible, in spite of Paul. Perhaps even, because of him, in part. By age 11, puberty was upon me, and my self-esteem was shaky. At this point, my mother told me we would begin our lessons on Biblical womanhood. During our first lesson, we sat in my mother’s room by her vanity table, and she gave me a notebook covered with floral fabric to write the lessons I learned. My sister was allowed to participate in our lessons, but she didn’t get a special notebook just yet. I felt special. One of the first scriptures we read, written by Paul, said a woman’s real beauty should come from within. It soothed me. Our lessons included awkward bits like lectures on hygiene and sex, and exciting bits like my mother’s backstory. My mother, one of seven children, grew up dirt poor in Northern Nigeria. She shared her stories about waking up to hawk food with her mother before school, about her classmates laughing at her when she used cooking oil as body lotion, about digging through trash for valuables, and about using her pocket money to buy Bibles. In a ghetto where girls frequently got pregnant, and boys often got drunk, it was the Bible she insisted, that kept her honest. It was moments like these that held together the pieces of the Bible that didn’t make sense to me like glue.
There were also the moments with my father. I frequently stormed to his room with questions when something in the Bible seemed off to me. He often had answers short enough, and patience long enough to placate me. For example, when I inquired about why women were almost always exempt from Biblical genealogy and census records, he explained how it was a matter of logistics and context, not malice.
As I settled into my adolescent body, I took off my shoes and relaxed into the Bible’s scriptures. They were home. I grew accustomed to our weekly family devotions in our small living room, where our parents taught us hymns and scriptures. The hymns were our heirlooms, the scriptures were our tradition, and Christianity was our culture. If the Bible was good enough for my mother who I revered/feared, and for my father who I adored, it was good enough for me. That is, until I turned 15. 15 is when the glue melted and the pieces shattered. 15 is when everything changed.
TO BE CONTINUED.