This interview with me ran in the latest issue of Fathom Magazine. Today we’re happy to have as our guest Dr. Sandra Glahn. Sandi earned her ThM at Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) and her PhD at the University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) in Humanities–Aesthetic Studies. A professor in the Media Arts and Worship department at DTS, she teaches courses in writing, medieval art/spirituality, gender, and sexual ethics. She is the author of more than twenty books, including the Coffee Cup Bible Study series. But today we want to talk with her about her latest book Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting the Sexualized, Vilified, Marginalized Women of the Bible (Kregel Academic), which just came out.
Tell us about Vindicating the Vixens.
Vindicating the Vixens has been on my heart and mind for more than a decade. As I studied history and cultural backgrounds at the doctoral level, I ended up revisiting some of our Western-influenced interpretations of the biblical text.
For example, the woman Jesus met at the well in Samaria had five husbands, true enough (see John 4). But why do most people assume that means she was faithless and immoral? Women in her time and place did not divorce husbands five times. The man with the most recorded divorces had only three. If a woman did initiate legal proceedings, she had to do so through a male. Women could not simply walk into a court of law and speak on their own behalf. So, it’s unlikely that “the Samaritan woman” had divorced five husbands.
Additionally, when we read that this woman’s current man was not her own, we assume she was living with some guy. Because that’s what it would mean in the West. But in her world, it is far more likely that she had to share a husband in a polygamous relationship in order to eat.
Put these factors together, and you realize this person was probably not a beautiful young woman with loose morals. More likely, she was an older woman who had endured the death of a husband several times (war was the number one cause of death for men), been dumped a time or two, and consequently having to share a husband in order to survive. Additionally, the text says she was waiting for, looking with hope for, the Jewish Messiah (4:25).
So we have, probably wrongly, assumed this woman was guilty of sexual promiscuity, and that Jesus was confronting her about her sin. More likely, Jesus was bringing up her greatest point of pain before revealing to her that he is the very Messiah for whom she has been waiting. For everyone else in Jesus’ world, the Lord seems to subtly veil who he is. But with this broken woman hanging on to hope, he comes right out with it.
This woman is one of many whom the contributors to Vindicating the Vixens reconsider in light of what we know about cultural backgrounds, not only from new data but also from having more varied “eyes on the text.”
You’ve been known to talk about the importance of having varied eyes on the text. What do you mean by that?
Scholars from underrepresented groups looking at the Bible see what many of us in privileged positions have missed. They have brought to the text observations from a powerless perspective, which is the perspective of the typical person to whom Jesus ministers. (Like this great message from the perspective of those who are hearing impaired.) The body of Christ is made up of many parts that need each other to function as a healthy whole. But we’ve missed out on what some of those parts have to offer.
In our book the contributors look afresh at Eve, Hagar, Sarah, Tamar, Rahab, Deborah, Ruth, Huldah, Bathsheba, Vashti, Mary Magdalene, The Samaritan Woman, Junia, and even the Virgin Mary—who gets marginalized by Protestants. And we look at them through the eyes of sixteen biblical scholars, each of whom hold a high view of scripture. And they all hold at least one advanced degree in Bible and theology. They are men and women; complementarian and egalitarian; American and Australian; black, white, Arab, and authors of books like Discipleship for Hispanic Introverts. Their varied backgrounds mean they bring insights in the text that the majority culture in North American has often missed—and exported. And as a result, the authors’ combined efforts provide a fresh look at the kindness of God and his heart for the vulnerable. (You can watch some of them talking about this book.)
What made you decide to do this project?
First, I believe men and women—not just husbands and wives—are supposed to partner in ministry. The church father Jerome had Paula partnering with him, though many think theologically trained women are a recent innovation. They are not. A greater emphasis on social history (as opposed to studying only troop movements, kings, and empires) has come from the academy due to women’s greater involvement in higher education in the past half-century. Trained social historians bring new ways of culling out data from the text—like what I just said about marriage practices in the Near East.
But also, my deep friendship with some international students, especially those from Mexico, combined with travels to several continents told me we needed more than a Western perspective when doing observation, interpretation, and application.
Additionally, part of my job used to involve serving as editor-in-chief of DTS Magazine for Dallas Theological Seminary, and I also teach theologically trained writers. So not only have I spotted some great writers, but I learned of projects people were doing that needed greater audiences. Sometimes the great writers were those doing this work.
As a sampling, there was the student doing a thesis on Bathsheba (Sarah Bowler); a scholar who wrote a book on Arabs in the Bible that changed how I saw Hagar (Tony Maalouf); and a whole corpus of work on Bible stories that included women and men in need of vindication (Carolyn Custis James). For ten years or more I’ve been keeping a mental note of how these all fit together, and I could hardly wait to coordinate it.
What do you hope to accomplish?
Originally, I hoped only to help us read the Bible more accurately as we read about these women. But a happy result of the project was that the team of scholars went beyond simply exonerating those wrongly vilified or marginalized to explore what we have missed in the larger story by misunderstanding the smaller stories and how they fit into the whole. Now I see how the Tamar-posing-as-a-professional-sex-worker narrative fits into Joseph’s story in Genesis—which scholars have often assumed she merely interrupted. What emerged from all these micro-narratives was and is a clearer vision of God’s heart for the vulnerable in the meta-narrative.
Before even writing, all of the authors agreed to donate profits to the International Justice Mission. So in a tangible way, we also hope our scholarship will lead to lives changed for the better for “the least of these.”
You can read an excerpt from Vindicating the Vixens about the context and cues from one of these heroines, Rahab.
In terms of ramifications for scholarship, I hope readers will see the absolute necessity of inviting to the table a more diverse group doing translation and interpretation than what we have typically had. I hope that we will never again see a translation of the Bible published that has only men or only women or only people from one “camp” looking at the text, but that we will instead celebrate our differences and seek diligently to include a variety of people due to our belief in God’s love for unity in difference.
Where can we find Vindicating the Vixens?