Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Book Review: When God Was a Woman, Part II

This post is a continuation of my review of Merlin Stone's book When God Was a Woman. Yesterday, I talked about Stone's exploration of what a Goddess-worshiping society looked like.

2. The Story of Adam and Eve

To me, the most interesting part of Stone's book is her chapter in which she "unravels the myth of Adam and Eve." In Genesis, this myth holds that God created a male human being and placed him in the Garden of Eden. Realizing that this man needed a "help-mate," he created a woman out of the man's rib. After woman was created, a serpent tempts the woman to eat from "the tree of knowledge," something that God had forbidden the man and woman to do. Eve, the woman, convinced the man to eat from the tree as well. As punishment for her disobedience, God said to Eve, "I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you."

Stone argues that this creation myth "with a point of view" was created not only to justify the domination of men over women but also to "suppress the female religion" (198). Although the common assumption is that the serpent in the Garden of Eden represents a phallic male symbol, Stone argues that archaeological evidence suggests that serpents during biblical times represented the female deity. For instance, "in several Sumerian tablets the Goddess was simply called the Great Mother Serpent of Heaven" (199). Other goddesses associated with the serpent included the Goddess Nina, Ishtar of Babylon, Tiamat, the Serpent Goddess of Crete, and the Goddess in Egypt (whose heirogylphic symbol was the cobra) (199-202).

Not only was the female deity, "as she was known in Babylon, Egypt, Crete, and Greece... identified as or with the serpent" but she was also "associated with wisdom and prophecy" (204) and "sexual pleasures and reproduction as well" (217). Stone suggests that in the Adam and Eve Myth, the advisory serpent represented the Goddess and that the tree of knowledge represented the "secret of sex- how to create life" (Ibid.). Given these symbols, the myth warns that worshiping the Goddess, via eating from the tree, had "caused the downfall of all humanity" (Ibid.). In this way, the supremacy of the male God and of male human beings was "decreed by the male deity at the very dawn of existence" (Ibid.). This myth endures as, today, one of the first lessons many children learn in church is that all women are daughters of Eve and, because of her disobedience, women must endure the pain of childbirth and obey their husbands.

For all human beings, Judeo-Christian religions espouse "discomfort or guilt about being human" because we are conceived by "the act of sexual intercourse" (218). To that, I would also add that part of this guilt or discomfort comes from the fact that we are born from female bodies, bodies that some religions view as filthy, less-than, or otherwise inferior to male bodies. Using these ideas to inform the phrase " "born-again Christian" can give us a quite interesting critique. Some feminists, for instance, consider the "born-again" concept to be a male appropriation of the woman's biological ability to give birth.

One of the characteristics that most sets women and men apart is the ability that women have to give birth. All people are alive today because they first lived inside of a woman's body. I realize that the specifics vary by denomination, but many Christian religions teach that humans are inherently sinful and that the only way to salvation is to be "born-again" through a male being through baptism or acceptance of a male deity. In this way, male-centric religion has taken what makes women biologically special and has made it its own. The implication is that something is inherently wrong with humans as they are born from women and, therefore, seeing the "Kingdom of God" requires spiritual re-birth into the family of God. Thus, not only is the male God/Trinity the Father, but He has also appropriated the role of Mother. Or, as Stone says, "Woman bears the pain but man takes the credit" (226).

The myth of Adam and Eve contains a similar appropriation. Even though all humans are birthed from a woman's body, the myth tells us not only that woman came from a "rather insignificant part of man, his rib" but also that "the male does not come from the female, but the female from the male" (219). And just because that does not cement woman's lower status enough, the male God also commands that the woman was the gift, the subservient "help-mate," to man (220). And just because being a "help-mate" is not subservient enough, because it was Eve who convinced Adam to eat from the tree of knowledge, the "demand for silence on the part of women, especially in the churches, is later reflected in the passages of Paul in the New Testament" (221). For instance, in I Timothy 2:11-14, Paul writes:

"A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner."

Sentiments like this, justifying the exclusion of women from the clergy or from speaking in church, are expressed throughout the Bible and adherents offer them as "divine proof that man must hold the ultimate authority" (225).

As I re-read this review prior to posting it, I couldn't help but to be reminded of how advantageous Judeo-Christian religions are to male humans. I have no doubt that many people, religious or not, don't think all this is that big a deal. Disregarding how alienating such myths are to women, imagine what an ego-lifting boost it must be to boys and men to have one's dominant place in society firmly cemented as "Ultimate Truth" set out by a "god" who looks just like themselves (if they're white of course). What a sense of entitlement that must bring to a little boy who learns about how a male god first created a male human being and then, to ensure that this male being didn't get too lonely, created a female out of his rib to help him out with things. How convenient, to male clergy members to have so many passages to point to in the Bible that could be used to justify excluding female human beings from the clergy. I think about and wonder how these ideas have perpetuated and reinforced existing power structures in society.

I fully realize that many people truly believe that the Bible isn't "sexist" and that it just expresses things the way they really are. It's in the Bible, so it's true, they think. If someone's reading this who believes as much, I suppose it's best to end with a quote from early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft:

"...though the cry of irreligion, or even atheism, be raised against me, I will simply declare, that were an angel from heaven to tell me that Moses' beautiful, poetical cosmogony, and the account of the fall of man, were literally true, I could not believe what my reason told me was derogatory to the character of the Supreme Being" (229).

I have said it before and I will say it again. Any deity who would condemn half of humanity to a lower place in this world in relation to the other half is not worthy of devotion. To suggest as much, certainly is derogatory to the character of any "God." Unfortunately, it has been the case throughout the history of religion that those who hold power in society too often imbue their gods with their own human prejudices and, then, these faults are taken for granted as spiritual truth.

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