A Tale of Two Feminists

The Book of Revelation features four female figures: Jezebel (2:20), the Cosmic Woman (12:1-5, 13-17), the great Whore (17:1-17; and the Bride of the Lamb (21:9-11). The two most prominent figures are the Whore and the Bride. Feminist interpreters are almost uniformly alarmed by images John evokes with these figures. For example, John writes of the death of the Whore:

[The kings] and the beast will hate the whore; they will make her desolate and naked; they will devour her flesh and burn her up with fire. (17:16)

Professor Tina Pippin comments on this scene:

The object of desire is made the object of death. The Whore/Goddess/Queen/Babylon is murdered (a sexual murder) and eaten and burned. This grotesquely exaggerated vision of death and desire accentuates the hatred of the imperial power—and of women. This story of death and desire is the most vividly misogynist passage in the New Testament. The Apocalypse is cathartic on many levels, but in terms of an ideology of gender, both women characters in the narrative and women readers are victimized. (Pippin, Death and Desire, 58)

Now I have a bit of a quibble with Pippin’s take on this. The Apocalypse is an apocalypse, which means that the Whore is not a whore. She/it is probably more of an ideology, and to John an ideology espoused by men. In the world of the Apocalypse, this is male-on-male violence. But all that’s rather minor. I have a stronger reaction to Professor David L. Barr’s comments:

Pippin is absolutely right to confront the way women are portrayed in this text. Contemporary men can justify their mistreatment of women by such ancient texts; contemporary women draw self-images from such stories. No one can be allowed to feel that what happens to John’s whore in this story could ever be justified for any woman. (Barr, “Doing Violence,” in Reading the Book of Revelation: A Resource for Students, ed. David L. Barr, 104)

I see a lot of smoke and noise here, but I’m not so sure I can find a real fire. First, there’s no footnote supporting the idea that men actually do justify mistreatment of women using this passage, or that women have found themselves in these images. If such a grotesque self-justification is really a problem, I want to know the details. In particular, I want to know the when and the who, so I can judge the relevance of Barr’s warnings to the here and now.

Second, if it is problem, that is, if there are men who have actually acted out sexual violence against women under motivation of this passage, I suspect that there’s more wrong with them than just their hermeneutics. Although there is always a need for suspicion about the application of ancient gender roles to modern life, the abusers of the Whore seem unlikely candidates for role models in the mind the average guy.

Although I find Barr’s work somewhat flawed, this does not mean that I find every feminist interpreter of Revelation unenlightening. On the contrary, one of my favorite exegetes is Professor Edith Humphrey. Her work with gender is a pleasure to read precisely because her take on Revelation’s gender relationships shows a sensitivity to all the relationships John creates:

It is not as if Revelation were concerned with an elaborate chain of being, from God, through angels, through males, through females, down to the inanimate created order. For John is twice forbidden to do obeisance to the mediating angel (19:10; 22:9) and all, great or small, find a level place before the throne of God and the Lamb (19:12). (Humphrey, “A Tale of Two Cities,” in Barr, Revelation, 94.)

Professor Humphrey’s reading demonstrates a “complex network of associative metaphors” woven in and through the Cosmic Woman, the Whore, and the Bride. Two are mothers; one a virgin. Two are associated with the wilderness; one is viewed from a high mountain. Two are harried by their enemies; one is never exposed. Two are clothed in terrestrial finery; one in the celestial . Two are humble; one thinks she “sits a queen” and has no needs.

I want to focus on the humility of the Cosmic Woman and the Bride because this subordination often bothers other feminists. I think Professor Humphrey scores a particularly good point here:

The subordination of the female figure of the bride (and of the refugee queen) in Revelation is, in the first place, a reflection on the supreme authority of the Alpha and Omega…these figures are subordinate to God, so they retain strength over their detractors. (Humphrey, 94)

This is a point too often dismissed by feminist interpretation. It is perfectly okay for a woman to submit to, and be protected by, God. Our interactions with men require considerably more scrutiny — and any real gentleman as well as every human father ought to have no qualms about it — but God is an entirely different matter.

The status of beloved daughter of a perfect Father carries no stigma. It should receive the positive counterpart of the attention devoted by feminists such as Professor Barr to identifying and critiquing the less savory images that can surely be found. Only as feminism develops enough balance to ensure that this happens, that is, that the positive aspects of a woman’s relationship with God are brought to light, will it be living up to its real potential as an ideology of, and for, women.

6 Replies to “A Tale of Two Feminists”

  1. “The Apocalypse is an apocalypse, which means that the Whore is not a whore. She/it is probably more of an ideology, and to John an ideology espoused by men.”

    I don’t think that’s a minor point _at all._ I wish more people would recognize the symbolism as applied to female figures in the Bible. For instance, the “daughters of Zion” in Isaiah are _not_ women, they are the covenant people. So when they put on their finery, men would be well advised to apply this to themselves and their pride!

    Likewise, the Bride symbolizes the Church. Women need not suppose it is they alone who are pure and virginal.

  2. John’s characters and symbols are taken lock, stock and barrel from the OT Prophets. His Apocalypse is effectively a retelling of the OT apocalyptic Day of the Lord in a NT context of Christianity. In these various female figures I would not hold them up as symbols of mysogyny or representative of such. Male figures in the OT Prophets (e.g., the king of Assyria, both literal and figurative) meet similar destructive fates. Any attempt to justify mysogyny from the text would meet with the figure of the Bride of the Lamb. Sure, there are a lot of unpleasant female characters, both literal and figurative in the OT, but there are also prophets who castigate the men of Israel for leading the women of Israel to sin and place the blame squarely at the feet of the men when they do so (e.g., Hosea).

  3. Hm…no feminists. I guess they don’t know we’re here. I’m such a newb at feminist interpretation that I doubt my argument is good enough to withstand real debate…

    Although I personally pretty much agree with BiV and Kurt, I think that the feminists would argue that there is power simply in the sign, without recourse to the signified.

  4. I guess I’ll add my two cents even though it is likely that no one will ever read it.

    First cent: I agree that the symbol is almost certainly not meant to convey any disrespect toward women or be mysogonistic in any way but on the other hand symbols are exremely powerful and often misinterpreted by men. I can’t say that I think any man has ever justified the sort of act described here from this passage but the image of wicked women being objects of loathing is persistent in the OT. This image only supports the idea that women only come in two flavors and the wicked kind should be dealt with harshly.

    Cent two: The symbolic presentation of women in their two roles (seriously righteous and seriously wicked) always has struck me as a backhanded compliment to women that I’ve yet to hear a feminist acknowlege. Both of these women are powerful, very powerful. Whether you are Deborah, filling in for the inept Eli, or you are Jezebel, leading men astray from God, either way the image is of a powerful figure. The righteous woman is a person to be admired and repected. The wicked woman is a person to be feared precicely because she has so much power over men’s hearts. I really think that women are portrayed in the way that they are in the OT, etc. because the men of the world were constantly trying to remind and warn each other about just how much care should be paid to women. Albeit, they then went on to control and dominate them.

  5. The “problem” with strong women is weak men?

    Yes, I tend to agree. What I’m working on here is the idea that feminisim,in at least some of its instantiations, is not really helping, either. I think what I’m sort of feeling my way around is an aversion to teaching that women need to be protected from God. A corollary is that God may be male, but there are some distinctions between Him and him…

    Anyway, good to see you back. More later. Weekends are such hell around here.

  6. “The symbolic presentation of women in their two roles (seriously righteous and seriously wicked) always has struck me as a backhanded compliment to women that I’ve yet to hear a feminist acknowlege.”

    J. Watkins, I doubt you’ve encountered a healthy variety of feminists then. 😉 I agree with you, and tend to believe that much of the anger, hate, etc that society now and in the past has for women is fueled by fear. (Que Yoda, fear leads to blah blah blah.)

    Anyhow, about the metaphors, I still have a problem with them. My problem with them is that in order for us to properly make sense of what John is saying about the ideaologies that the whore and virgin represent, we have to rather intimately understand the feelings and positions of these women within that society. And you can’t think about something too long without it rubbing off on you at least a little bit.

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