Liberation And Feminist Theologies

In the 1970s and 1980s a quite new agenda for using the Old Testament was set by social materialist, liberation and feminist theologies. Social materialist scholars used a refined form of historical criticism to study the social background of Israelite society; they were also informed by Marxist theories about the development of societies and were sympathetic to left-wing political aspirations. A major contribution in this field was N.K.Gottwald's The Tribes of Yahweh: The Sociology of Liberated Israel 1250-1050 BCE (Gottwald 1979). This massive study of the sociology of Israel's origins argued that, in the thirteenth century BCE, Israel had come into existence when peasant farmers had rebelled against the Canaanite city states in ancient Palestine, and had formed an egalitarian society. This social revolution had, at the same time, produced faith in Yahweh as a God of liberation. For Gottwald, this ancient egalitarian stage was the high point of Israelite religion after which the advent of kingship had introduced oppressive structures against which the people had to struggle. Seen in this way, the Old Testament was an encouragement to the establishment of a society where power was shared among the people, and a call to oppose oppressive structures.

Gottwald was still working within the methodology of biblical criticism as it had been produced by the Enlightenment, even if he was criticizing many of its received ideas; he was still within modernism. In liberation theology we find hints of post-modernism, that is, a challenge to the Enlightenment belief in the existence of universal norms of reason. Liberation theologians challenged the situation in which the interpretation of the Old Testament had become the prerogative of academics working within the Western academic tradition. Being located among the poor and under-privileged of South America, they asserted that the Old Testament was originally written not for Western academics but for the poor and oppressed in ancient Israel; that if one wished to hear the authentic message of the Old Testament this was possible only if it was heard from the perspective of the poor and oppressed.

In liberation theology generally, the Old Testament came into its own because its understanding of concepts such as salvation, righteousness and steadfast love has a concrete and practical side as well as a spiritual side. For the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, salvation was not a sense of being valued that enabled them to endure their slavery more patiently, nor was it a promise of better life after this one. It was an experience of actual liberation from bondage. Righteousness meant God actively bringing about justice where there was none; God's steadfast love was expressed in the covenant relationship which he established with his people, a relationship which required that justice and compassion were shown in action to the poor and needy.

Feminist theologians have also addressed the Old Testament in new ways. For many of them, their motivation was that the Old Testament had been used in theology and the Church to maintain and defend the subordination of women to men; and passages such as Genesis 2, which suggests that woman was created to be a helper for man, and Genesis 3 which seems to envisage a predominantly child-bearing role for women, have received much attention (Rogerson 1991:35-41). Some feminist treatments of the Old Testament have assumed a 'hermeneutics of rejection'; that is, they have maintained that the Old Testament is too much the product of a patriarchal society for it to be applicable to a modern world which accepts the right of women to set their own agendas for their roles and aspirations. (A similar view is taken by some liberation theologians on the ground that the Old Testament was writtten by, and reflects the outlook of, a ruling elite.)

Our understanding of the resources available from the Old Testament for theological reflection has been greatly enriched by liberation and feminist approaches. Even those that embrace a 'hermeneutics of rejection' alert people in the opposite camps to the need for great sensitivity, and for reconsidering much that had been taken for granted. Two very simple examples will indicate this. First, scholars have long been concerned to identify the mysterious 'servant of God' who is mentioned in general in Isaiah 40-55 and in particular in the four poems of 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9 and 52:13-53:12. But it has been generally overlooked that a female character, the daughter of Sion (i.e.

Jerusalem personified as a young woman), also appears in passages such as 49: 14-26; 52:1-3; 54:1-10 as well as in chapters 56-66. This character is also deserving of close study (Sawyer 1989).

The other example is a translation matter. In Psalm 22:9 the traditional English translation is 'But thou art he that took me out of the womb.' This is found, with insignificant variations, from the Authorized Version to the Revised Standard Version and the Revised English Bible. Grammatically it is correct; but it is arguable that the translation, by insisting on the 'he', obscures the fact that the Psalmist has used the female image of God as midwife. The New Revised Standard Version has 'Yet it was you who took me from the womb.'

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