The bible is full of violence. It’s tempting to think violence is only in the Old Testament but there is plenty in the New Testament. Jesus comes to mind. There is also the adulterous woman who was about to be stoned, the murder of Steven and the repeated imprisoning and beating of the disciples.
Much of the violence in the bible is against women and sadly this violence rarely finds justice. The ancient world was a patriarchal and oftentimes violent place. That’s another blog post for another time. This week we focus on biblical texts that are taken out of context as a way of excusing intimate partner violence. The worst offender is from Ephesians 5.
“Wives obey your husbands” (Ephesians 5:22). Like most verses taken out of context, this one has a wider perspective that is essential to faithful interpretation. The segment begins in verse 21,
“Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives be subject to your
husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as
Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the
church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, subject to
I know; it is hard to take. Remember this is the first century C.E. and things were different. In order for these verses to make sense the next part of the passage must be included:
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for
her…In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies.
He who loves his wife loves himself.”
It’s important to take this all together. Being subject to one another presupposes the covenant relationship of marriage, property rights notwithstanding. The verses acknowledge mutuality between women and men. It assumes the husband will consider the wife, love her and honor her body. The obedience of the wife is dependent on the man keeping his part of the relationship. In fact, there are more instructions to the husband about how to treat his wife than there are instructions to the woman! Taking one verse about the behavior of women out of context is an unfaithful rendering of the text.
Another text that is often misquoted and misinterpreted is Jesus’ teaching on divorce found in Mark 10; it has a corollary in Matthew 19. The Mark passage sets the stage with a question from a group of Pharisees (they were religious leaders). “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”
According to the Rev. Graham Van Keuren, Pastor and Teacher at the Congregational Church of Somersville, Somersville, CT, “Judaism in Jesus’ day was split down the middle regarding what justified proper divorce. There was one school, following a teacher named Hillel, who taught that a man could divorce his wife for almost any reason, such as being a bad cook. There was another school of thought, following a rabbi named Shammai, who taught that infidelity was the only reason a man could divorce his wife.”
It was a trick question designed to scope out which school of thought Jesus followed. And Jesus was having none of it. His answer was another widely quoted bit of scripture often found in wedding ceremonies; “God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh. So, they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
The passage goes on, and in verses 11 and 12 Jesus says, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” We get caught up in the adultery language and lose the shock of the passage in its original context. According to Pastor Van Keuren, women weren’t even allowed to divorce men, so for Jesus to mention it was completely radical.
The point of all this is that Jesus equalizes the relationship between women and men. He refuses to participate in the patriarchal property-based understanding of marriage and affirms the rights and equality of women. Jesus always speaks for the most vulnerable. He refuses to play by the rules of violence and power. His teachings say that the powerful should give up their privilege to the vulnerable. The abuser should stop using violence against those who are powerless to resist. In the ancient world the wife was vulnerable to her husband. As such the husband was not to use his power to victimize or violate the wife. In the way of being in the world that Jesus teaches, power is only used well when it enhances someone else’s freedom.
Scripture cannot be used to justify intimate partner violence. It is unfaithful to the text and unfaithful to the God we claim to follow. There is no excuse for intimate partner violence.
October is Domestic Violence (intimate partner) Awareness Month. If you, or someone you know is suffering at the hands of their husband or partner, get resources at the National Domestic Violence Hotline website (www.thehotline.org) or call 1-800-799-7223 or TYY 1-800-787-3224. Help is available, and so is hope.