Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Stolen Voices

The Lord announces the word, and the women who proclaim it are a mighty throng. (Psalm 68.11)

A Mighty Throng

Yesterday, after a truly wild and woolly workday, I really needed it to end. A nap would give me a fresh start, I thought. I awoke an hour later with gifts in mind—not Christmas gifts. Just gifts. I recalled Ephesians 4.7-8: “To each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: ‘When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.’” With Paul quoting Psalm 68.18, I reread the entire song. Even after a third read, however, I hadn’t the slimmest notion what it was about. It sounded like a victory hymn. Clearly, something amazing happened—a war won, a lost territory regained, or a longtime enemy vanquished. But the language was all over the map. Ephesians sounded much easier. It fired up plenty ideas: grace personified in Christ; Christ’s gifts to us; ascendance; etc. But verse 11 wouldn’t let go: “The Lord”—Governor of all things—“announces the word”—including The Word, the Christ—“and the women who proclaim it are a mighty throng.”

A mighty throng of women proclaiming God’s Word! The image thrilled me no end. Having plunged into Advent, my mind instantly saw Mary and Elizabeth. It dashed ahead to Mary Magdalene and the women at the tomb, to Lydia, Lois, Eunice, and other Early Church heroines. It flashed on Sarah, Miriam, Ruth, Deborah, Esther, and Hannah, as well as three matriarchs Matthew makes sure to include in his genealogy of Jesus: Tamar, the rejected wife; Rahab, the courageous prostitute; and Bathsheba, the widow of a man David has killed so he can make her his queen. Finally, I ran the long list of extraordinary women of faith in my life, especially those I’ve come to know here. What a mighty throng they are! “Christ gave gifts,” Paul says, and the multitude of Spirit-led, fiercely committed women proclaiming God’s Word undoubtedly ranks among the greatest of them. Is this what David’s saying? That’s what I hear. Still, it would be careless not to confirm my reading. Who are the women in Psalm 68?


Opening Calvin’s Commentary on Psalms, I learned Psalm 68 confounded him and every other reputable commentator after him. Adam Clarke named it “the most difficult psalm in the whole Psalter.” The 17th-century theologian and linguist, Simon de Muis, wrote, “There are customs here referred to, which I do not fully understand: there are words whose meaning I cannot, to my own satisfaction, ascertain; and allusions which are to me inexplicable.” Combing through commentaries uncovered constant refrains of “David seems to say” and “This might mean.” So who are Psalm 68’s women? Nobody can confidently say. According to Clarke, verse 11 literally translates as, “Of the women preachers there was a great host,” and many agree, much to our satisfaction. They also agree the verse likely evokes Deborah, Israel’s legendary judge, who sent King Barak into battle and stood with him to declare victory. Yet, since she sings her triumph, most commentators—obviously skittish about the whole woman-preacher thing—use the extrapolation to interpret “the mighty throng” as a female choir. Unfortunately, David adds ammo to their speculation in verse 25 by mentioning “young women playing the timbrels,” an instrument associated with Miriam, who led Israel into song and dance after crossing the Red Sea.

I don’t buy it. If David meant “singers,” why call them “preachers”? They proclaim God’s word. What’s more, they witness God’s goodness to them: “Kings and armies flee in haste; the women at home divide the plunder. Even while you sleep among the sheep pens, the wings of my dove are sheathed with silver, its feathers with shining gold.” (v12-13) Doves are messengers, not songbirds. One imagines this mighty throng defiantly raising arms wreathed in fine bracelets to declare, “See what God has done!” I hear shouts of confidence, a flurry of powerful spoken praise. Miscasting women as a choir cleverly reduces them to back-up singers, which—despite the psalm’s riddles—they plainly aren’t. David puts them at the top of the third stanza. It’s God word. But it’s their proclamation.

Bristling at the commentators’ brazen attempts to shove women into the background, I thought of the song Mary sings to convey her wonder at God’s work in her. I turned to Luke 1 to reread it, hoping to hear echoes of Psalm 68. Indeed, they’re there. God scatters the proud. God brings down rulers. God fills the hungry with good things. But here’s what jolted me: before Mary opens her mouth, Luke writes, “And Mary said.” (v46) The mother of Christ proclaims, “The Mighty One has done great things for me.” (v49) She’s not singing at all! She speaks God’s word. Why have we allowed fearful men to persuade us this magnificent passage is Mary’s “song,” when it’s actually her homily?

It’s Not Okay

While this is turning into a rather arduous post, I trust you’ll hang with me. The commentaries and mislabeling of Mary’s message point out how subtly male stewardship of Christianity devalues women—and non-heterosexuals—by skewing Scripture to minimize them. Unclear passages open doors to assert a straight, masculine agenda. Mythologizing women and outcasts who step forward to proclaim God’s word is another neat trick. It’s okay if Mary sings, if Deborah sings, if the mighty throng sings. Singing isn’t preaching. It’s okay to limit the Hebrew and Greek words for “eunuch” to “castrated male,” even though both also define those sexually drawn to their own gender. The last thing the church needs are gay people claiming the promise of Isaiah 56.5: “To them [eunuchs] I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters.” It’s okay to saddle Mary Magdalene—the first to preach Christ’s resurrection—with a promiscuous past, despite no Scripture supporting this myth. That diminishes her, so Peter and the boys can take charge. God bless them, men who’ve hatched and perpetuate this practice may sincerely believe it’s okay, as that’s how they view God and God’s Word. But it’s not okay. It’s not okay with us. And it’s certainly not okay with God.

Let’s go back to Ephesians. “To each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: ‘When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.’” Advent stirs us to remember Christ comes to give us grace—each one of us. Christ comes to give gifts to Christ’s people—all of us. If it’s not okay for misguided men (and women) to apportion grace and gifts by gender and orientation, it definitely isn’t okay for us to permit it. Your gifts are your gifts. Christ gave them to you. Christ came to give them to you. Receive them. Cherish them. Use them. We who’ve been denied are a mighty throng. The Lord—the Governor of all things—announces the word—including The Word, the Christ—and we proclaim it. I pray this Advent becomes a season when many stolen voices will be found and reclaimed. Amen.

It is not okay to permit misguided men (and women) to apportion grace and gifts by gender and orientation. Our gifts are our gifts. Christ came to give them to us.

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