The lectionary silences women’s experiences

by
25 October 2019

It is time to make the stories of female biblical characters more visible during public worship, says Rosalind Brown

A FEW years ago at evensong in Durham Cathedral, I read the Old Testament lesson which was part of the course (continuous) reading from Esther. The Hebrew authors knew how to tell a good story, and the lectionary that day ended with a cliffhanger. After the service, a visitor rushed up, desperate to know what happened next. I suggested that he come back next day for the denouement.

That incident illustrates the powerful impact of hearing good stories told well, and that churches are some of the few places in which adults are read to. The lectionary takes us through scripture systematically, and, while the Additional (“Pillar”) Lectionary provides stand-alone readings for occasional worshippers, it loses the great narrative stories that are so formative for the people of God.

I encouraged the cathedral community to read the Gospels or other books of the Bible from start to finish, to grasp the whole story into which the daily or weekly readings fitted.

There is not time to read every single word of the Old Testament in public worship, and the daily lectionary omits parts that may be useful for biblical scholarship but are not edifying for public worship, such as the more obscure dietary and ritual laws, or long lists of people’s often unpronounceable names (yet names that remind us that unknown people belong in God’s story).

It has always puzzled and increasingly annoyed me, however, that the lectionary omits some passages of scripture for no obvious reason.

 

THE Church of England has done much in recent years to make women more visible, but the lectionary leaves many women out of the biblical story and thus silences them. How are people to know about the strong and compassionate women in the Bible if they do not read or hear about them?

Examples of women’s stories omitted from the Old Testament lectionary readings include: Genesis 12.10-20: Sarai in Egypt; Genesis 34: Dinah; Genesis 38: Tamar (with Judah); Exodus 1.15-22: Shiprah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives; Exodus 4:24-25: Zipporah; Judges 19: the Levite’s concubine; Ruth 4: Ruth and Naomi; 1 Samuel 18.17-29: Michal and Merab; 1 Samuel 25: Abigail; 2 Samuel 6.20-23: Michal; 2 Samuel 13: Tamar (with Amnon and Absalom); 2 Samuel 14: the woman of Tekoa.

The rationale is hard to fathom. Why not read all of Exodus 1 when we read all of longer chapters? The missing eight verses tell how two Hebrew midwives refused the edict to kill all the Hebrew boys that they delivered. Without their courage, Moses would not have lived to lead the Exodus.

Omitting Ruth 4 means that we never hear whether Boaz marries Ruth, or how she, a foreign woman, became an ancestor of David and Jesus — something that is acknowledged in Matthew 1.5. If Ruth has to be read between New Year and Epiphany, why not read Ruth 3 and 4 together? There is no reason for air-brushing Abigail from the biblical story. Here is a strong and courageous woman who saved her family from her foolish husband’s actions, and prevented David’s acting rashly and unwisely. Instead, we simply skip over her and go back to the violence of that period.

Some women’s stories are essential to understanding the wider story: if you do not know that Amnon raped his half-sister Tamar, her brother Absalom’s rebellion against their father, David, has no apparent cause.

Others might be omitted because they are hard to explain (was Zipporah redressing the failure of Moses to circumcise his sons?), or are perceived to be “problematic” (Abram’s abandoning Sarai to an Egyptian harem in order to save his own life; Tamar’s challenge to Judah who, by denying her rights, threatened her survival as a widow; the rapes of Dinah, Tamar, and the Levite’s concubine; Michal’s treatment by her father); but these harrowing stories describe sexual exploitation that is disturbingly timeless, and women affected today should know that the Bible faces it head on.

 

ANY difficulty in these stories is as nothing when compared with some of the stories that we do read.

In my many years at Durham Cathedral, I winced regularly at the wanton cruelty (Samson and the foxes, and the gratuitous violence in some conflict situations come to mind), and the obscure laws that we sometimes read in public worship, and I hoped that the choristers were not listening.

If these women’s stories are difficult, how problematic is it that I was expected to read in public worship that women must keep silence in church? Despite any introductory comment that I or male colleagues made, without fail, someone would complain to me afterwards.

I do not claim that these examples are the only stories omitted in our course reading of scripture, but they highlight a consistent pattern in the lectionary’s silencing of women’s experiences in the biblical narrative. Surely it is time to make women visible and audible in our public and personal reading of scripture.
 

The Revd Rosalind Brown is Canon Emerita of Durham Cathedral and a former Church Times Sunday’s Readings columnist. This Sunday is Bible Sunday in Common Worship.

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