In the wake of the Supreme Court’s overturn of Roe v. Wade, many Christians have gone to their Bibles. Some in joy as they celebrate. Some for comfort as they worry about what comes next. Others for ammunition as they heckle abortion rights protestors. And religious challenges to the ruling have already surfaced, including a lawsuit brought by a Jewish synagogue. Yet, as feminist biblical scholars in the US, we’ve turned our attention to a different group: progressive Christians who point to their scriptures to ground their feminist, pro-choice commitments. In our judgment such arguments risk reinscribing patriarchal assumptions and norms. And such arguments based on the Bible are also likely to fail, given that the autonomy of women is not in fact a biblical value.
Rhiannon Graybill on the Hebrew Bible
Many progressive Christians seek out passages in the Hebrew Bible that challenge the assumption that the Bible opposes reproductive rights. One passage that appears with particular frequency is Numbers 5:11-31. Sometimes, this passage is included in lists of passages that show the Bible is not “pro-life” or “pro babies.” Other appeals are stronger: Numbers 5 offers a biblical sanction or even “recipe” for abortion.
Numbers 5 does seem to offer the clearest description of an abortion in the Hebrew Bible. As interpreters often point out, this abortion is not condemned by God, but rather condoned. And, in a detail that resonates with our present abortion reality, the abortion in Numbers 5 is caused by administering abortifacient drugs. As a pro-choice feminist biblical scholar, I understand, all too well, the desire to appeal to this text as an example of abortion that’s not just biblically neutral but biblically sanctioned. At last, a text we can use to prove the Right’s reading of the Bible is wrong!
But this reading, while tempting, is a dangerous distortion of what the text actually describes. Numbers 5 isn’t a story about a woman who has an abortion and God is fine with it. Instead, this is a story about patriarchal and theocratic forces operating on a woman’s body—and doing so without her consent. They violate the woman’s bodily autonomy in order to establish male sexual control over it. The abortion or miscarriage is simply one consequence of this display of power.
The larger context of Numbers 5 is a ritual used to determine whether a woman has committed adultery (there is no complementary test for men.) A man who believes his wife has committed adultery—even if he has no reason other than jealousy (Num. 5:14)—is instructed to bring her to the priest, along with an offering. The priest performs several ritual actions, including making her swear an oath and drink a potion of “bitter water” (a mixture of water, dust, and the dissolved words of the oath), after which her body reveals her guilt or innocence:
“If she has defiled herself and has been unfaithful to her husband, the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain, and her womb shall discharge, her uterus drop, and the woman shall become an execration among her people. But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, then she shall be immune and be able to conceive children.” (Num. 5:27-28, NRSV)
This may be an account of abortion; it’s certainly an account of misogyny. The woman is given no choice; she doesn’t speak except to say what the priest commands. The “water of bitterness” she’s forced to drink causes her “bitter pain” (perhaps even if she’s innocent or “clean”; the text gives no indication otherwise). And her humiliation and suffering are made public to the community, who then reject her (“the woman shall become an execration”).
These details suggest that Numbers 5 is, in fact, a fitting biblical story for America’s present political moment: a silenced woman, a (perhaps pregnant) female body subjected to masculine authority and judgment, the impossibility of redress or appeal, “bitter pain.” The best the woman accused of adultery can hope for is that it doesn’t happen again. Of course there’s no guarantee. In fact, although abortion is prescribed, rather than prohibited, in the text, the larger framework is the same—she has no control over her own body.
What Numbers 5 is not is a gleeful “gotcha” moment for confronting the Christian Right by showing the Bible really does champion abortion rights. It is, instead, a narrative that shows us the profound suffering that patriarchal control of female bodies can cause. Readers who seek material ripe for arguments in support of reproductive rights will need to look elsewhere, in the Hebrew Bible or beyond it.
Jill Hicks-Keeton on the New Testament
What about the New Testament? Doesn’t Jesus fix the patriarchy problem? (Short answer: No)
Many progressive Christians recruit their Bibles for feminist advocacy by pointing to Jesus as an exemplar. Jesus has a reputation for being particularly concerned about, kind to, and caring for women. Christians who want to be like Jesus, the logic goes, should imitate his solidarity with women. Interpreters who favor reproductive rights include access to abortion as healthcare as an affirmation of the value of the lives of women (and, typically, of others with reproductive capacity). Versions of this argument can be found here, here, and here.
But the Bible doesn’t actually provide evidence that Jesus advocated on behalf of women in patriarchal peril. Descriptions of Jesus as a friend to women exceed the textual data from the gospels. Jesus excludes women from his inner circle of followers and offers privileged information only to his disciples who are men (e.g., Mark 6:7, 31, 45; 9:2, 10; 10:32; 14:17, 33). Women in the gospels work harder to get Jesus’s attention—especially the one whom Jesus calls a dog (Mark 7:24-30). This Syrophoenician woman is often hailed as an empowering example for women, but the truth is that she’s strong and resilient not because of how Jesus treated her but in spite of how Jesus treated her.
Jesus heals women, but the healed women are reinserted into a patriarchal social order only for their lives or labor to be once again directed toward supporting the interests of men. Take Simon’s mother-in-law, for example (Mark 1:29-31), or the woman with a flow of blood (Mark 5:25-34). Jesus accepts service from women without fundamentally changing their status in a patriarchal social order (e.g., Mark 14:3-9; 15:40).
In the gospel of John (7:53-8:11), Jesus saves an “adulteress” from being stoned, all the while working with and extending the patriarchal constructs that have led to this situation in the first place. Jesus does not challenge the premise that she deserves stoning, only the right of the men jockeying with him for power to mete out the punishment. Even Jesus’s parables in Luke, the gospel most frequently claimed as concerned for women, presume male normativity and an audience of men only. In the New Testament gospels, Jesus expects women to comply with patriarchal norms and expectations.
Because Jesus isn’t especially kind to women in the gospels, interpreters must be creative in order to understand Jesus as affirming and loving towards women. That creativity is worth paying attention to—along with its stakes. One of the most common interpretive moves in this vein is to make Jesus a feminist-by-contrast, which is done (counter-factually) by depicting his first-century Jewish world as a misogynistic foil against which Jesus’s perceived progressivism then becomes apparent. The ubiquity of (often accidental) anti-Judaism in Christian feminism has been written on extensively. What’s less remarked upon, though, is that this interpretive move simultaneously compels the interpreter to denigrate women.
Turning Jesus into a feminist turns the interpreter into a misogynist. To see how, let’s examine a hallmark passage from the Jesus-as-feminist repertoire: Jesus’s interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. Interpreters who see Jesus here as being remarkably kind to and inclusive of women frequently claim that Jesus’s speaking to her at all, when his contemporaries would not have, is evidence of his magnanimity toward women.
Of course, any reader whose interpretation depends on being surprised that Jesus spoke to the woman also depends on anti-feminist assumptions that women don’t automatically deserve to be spoken to and that women are mere receptacles of male speech. The notion that a man speaking to a woman shows that he values her encodes a regime of masculine privilege and feminine deference. The (privileged) man is entitled to speech and the woman is expected to be gratified to get to listen to him. The man is a knower, an explainer, a holder forth, while the woman must see it as a privilege that she’s spoken to rather than ignored. She’s expected to give her attention to a man as though doing so were a gift to her.
Since when does a willingness to speak to women count as advocating for them? Or affirming their value? Or their autonomy? Women can be spoken to and also compelled to comply with patriarchal expectations. Women can be spoken to and also systematically marginalized. Women can be spoken to and also sexually assaulted. (Donald Trump spoke to women too.) But even if we overlook the absurdity of a claim that speaking to a woman makes someone a feminist, the content of Jesus’s speech in John 4 does him no favors. Biblical scholar Meredith Warren has argued that Jesus, in contrast to the woman’s community, slut-shames the woman at the well. It’s beyond the pale to argue that John 4 shows a Jesus who would advocate for autonomy for women, bodily or otherwise. To use a biblical Jesus as a model is to impoverish feminism.
Anchoring feminism or progressive gender politics in the Jesus of the Gospels offers little to the cause of women’s rights. It invites misogyny to the altar.
We share the progressive and specifically abortion rights-values that animate many progressive Christian readings of scripture. And we recognize that there are plenty of Christians who support abortion rights and women’s autonomy on other grounds—after all, the text is not the religion. It’s perhaps not the best battleground, either. Faced with the misogyny that follows in the wake of attempts to sanitize scripture, we must, with sorrow, dissent.