The Whore and the Bible

In a recent post, Richard Beck discusses the Madonna/Whore dynamic, arguing for its presence within the biblical text, especially within the book of Revelation. As I often find with Richard’s posts, he raises lots of the right questions, yet I find that I must demur at many of his proposed answers.

Richard draws our attention to the presence of the Bride and the Harlot as typological figures in the book of Revelation and observes:

For those aware of feminist scholarship, you’ll quickly see how the writer of Revelation is using the Madonna/Whore typology. This typology expresses the ambivalent nature of male feelings regarding female sexuality. On the one hand, the male sexual fantasy is to have a woman who is sexually uninhibited and insatiable. The female actresses in pornography portray this fantasy, a female who is sexually aggressive and can’t get enough sex. This – the Whore – is the sexual fantasy of most if not the vast majority of males.

The ambivalence comes from the fact that while most males fantasize about having sex with the Whore – the sexually uninhibited and insatiable female – they don’t want to be married to such a woman. When it comes to marriage men want the Madonna, the virginal and faithful bride.

Richard proceeds to claim that the casting of the woman as the whore is a Freudian projection – ‘the male libido projected onto women’. When reading the book of Revelation, we should see in the Whore not a woman but a man, the sex that is truly the sexually promiscuous one.

Beyond the appearance of the figures of the Bride and the Harlot in the book of Revelation, it seems to me that Richard provides us with little evidence to demonstrate that the standard Madonna/Whore typology is really operative here. Such evidence would demand a demonstration that the figures in Revelation primarily serve as archetypes for female sexuality in general, rather than as symbols of particular theological entities, without any overarching stereotyping agenda. Moving beyond the mere presence of these stock types in Revelation, it should examine how they are treated and how they function in terms of the typologies of which the text itself gives clearer evidence. It should approach these figures in terms of a thick appropriation of biblical symbolism. Lacking such a deep awareness of biblical symbolism we are at risk of grasping uncritically at the nearest extra-textual typology to hand.

The more general observations that Richard makes about the Madonna/Whore typology and its unhealthy functioning within society are ones with which I broadly agree. As he remarks, this typology is also found within many Christian groups, in which ‘purity’ teaching is overwhelmingly addressed to women, who can be made to serve as the scapegoats for sexual sin in the community, and given a complex about virginity in a way that men are not.

While I believe that this typology is profoundly harmful as it functions within our society and churches, leaving male sexual abuse of women unaddressed, maintaining a grossly imbalanced burden of responsibility, and stigmatizing many women and their sexuality, I am not completely persuaded that its operations are as straightforward as Richard seems to presume. For one, I am not persuaded that it is generally simplistically presumed to be about female sexual insatiability. I also remain to be convinced that the Madonna/Whore dynamic and the sexual double standard is solely or even primarily something that men unilaterally impose upon women, rather than being something that is more generally characteristic of and operative within a sexual economy with asymmetrical sexes, often being something that women impose upon other women. Addressing the Madonna/Whore dynamic and the sexual double standard will probably demand a more nuanced approach than those commonly advanced.

Returning to Revelation, such imagery needs to be more carefully situated within the framework of the larger biblical narrative. The focus upon the whore occurs within a particular context: that of Israel’s relationship to God (for reasons that I won’t get into here, I believe that Babylon the Great in Revelation is the city of Jerusalem as it faces the destruction of AD70, and represents the old covenant Jewish people). The fact that a nation that is as the bride of YHWH should run after other nations and their gods is so appalling that it is displayed in the most shocking imagery of all – the wife turned adulterous harlot.

This imagery is so shocking precisely because it is such an extreme sin, something uncharacteristic of women in general, and thus serving as a high-water mark of iniquity. It functions like the biblical image of the mother who boils and eats her own son. Within the context of a patriarchal society formed around fatherhood, procreation, and seed, an extremely adulterous wife was perhaps the sinner who most threatened the social order, leaving the husband with no assurance of paternity, humiliating her family, threatening the security of other wives, and denying her children a stable place in the community. The idea that the whore imagery involves a statement about women in general seems to me to miss the point of how the imagery is functioning in its context.

I think that closer study of related passages bears these claims out. In Joshua we see another city doomed to destruction, a city that will also be destroyed by seven trumpet blasts. The spies are protected by Rahab, a harlot, who is described as a woman of faith and is later rescued from the city’s destruction. Her sin is not dwelt upon: we are just told that she was a harlot in a matter-of-fact manner. She is presented as a person characterized by faith, while the men of Jericho are presented as wicked. Rahab goes on to become the bride of a leading member of the tribe of Judah (1 Chronicles 2:10-11), and a figure mentioned in the genealogy of Christ.

Rahab is never stigmatized for her sin. She betrays the men of her city, while seeking to save her family. The events of Joshua 2 and 6 draw heavily upon Exodus symbolism. Within this symbolism, Rahab is associated with the many other faithful women who were oppressed by tyrants – often sexually – but deceived them and were delivered (Sarai with Pharaoh and Abimelech, Rebekah with Abimelech, Rachel with Laban, the Hebrew midwives with Pharaoh, Jael with Sisera, Michal with Saul, Abigail with Nabal, Esther with Haman, etc.). Her role as a harlot is thus framed primarily in terms of male oppression, rather than as female sexual sin.

John clearly draws upon Jericho imagery at various points in his treatment of the Whore of Babylon in Revelation. The woman formerly marked by unfaithfulness and adultery becomes the bride, something that Warren Gage’s work demonstrates in incredible detail: the figure of the Great Harlot and the figure of the Spotless Bride are related. But, wait, within the Madonna/Whore typology isn’t the movement supposed to go in the other direction – the virginal bride becoming the sexually insatiable wife? If it is the standard Madonna/Whore typology that is operative in Revelation, how could there be this particular form of movement between the two figures, with the whore being redeemed as the bride?

Another parallel is found in John 4. There are lots of subtle connections between the texts here. Warren Gage’s remarks on the parallels here are worthy of a lengthy quotation:

With the Samaritan woman of the Gospel we have come to another Johannine representative of the bride of Jesus. Just as we observed the dual character of the seven churches, so we observe the dual character of the woman of Samaria. The portrait is the same. The Samaritan woman’s past bore much in common with the whore of Babylon, but her meeting with Jesus transforms her, so that she becomes like the bride of Christ at the end of Revelation.

We begin by noting the patterns of the correspondence between the Samaritan woman and the whore of Babylon. The Gospel account begins with Jesus sitting upon the well (4:6), a posture that corresponds to the whore of Revelation, who sits upon many waters (17:1). The Samaritan woman is thirsty, and comes to the well with her waterpot to draw (J 4:7,28). Similarly, the Babylonian whore is depicted with a cup in her hand, satisfying her thirst with abominations and fornication (R 17:4).

When challenged by Jesus, the Samaritan woman lies about her marital status, claiming that she has no husband. In fact, Jesus tells her that she has had five husbands, and the one she is now living with is not her husband (J 4:17-18). But when the Samaritan woman and the villagers receive Jesus, He remains among them two days (4:40). Similarly, John tells us that the Babylonian whore also lies about her marital status, claiming, “I am not a widow.” But in fact Babylon has known five kings who have fallen, and one is, and the other has not yet come (R 17:10). When he comes, however, he will remain with her a little while (R 17:10).

Christ redeems the Samaritan woman, in spite of her impure past, and transforms her into a picture of the bride of Jesus. Her thirst having been satisfied (J 4: 28), she leaves the One she loves at the well, going back into the village to share with everyone the love she has found without cost. And so she calls for the people, any who thirst for living water (J 4:10), to come out of the city to meet Jesus, who gives so freely by the well of waters (J 4:29-30). In this she conforms to the picture of the bride in Revelation, who invites all who thirst to come out of the city (cf. R 18:4) and partake of the water of life without cost (R 22:17).

The grace of Jesus expressed so tenderly to an immoral woman of Samaria surprises even the woman herself. In fact, she is shocked that Jesus would have anything to do with her (J 4:9). Likewise the disciples marvel that Jesus speaks with her (J 4:27). Similarly in Revelation, the disciple John marvels when he sees the whore of Babylon (R 17:6). By such means John recreates in the reader the astonished “wonder” of the disciples as we first become aware of the pattern whereby a harlot called out of the city of Babylon can become the bride of Christ.  As the reader begins to comprehend the full measure of the love of Jesus for the immoral woman of Samaria, he begins to share the very wonder of the disciples who returned to the well and saw Jesus speaking with a Samaritan woman. This woman, with five marriages and an ongoing illicit relationship, seems an unlikely antitype to the virginal Rachel, whom the Samaritan woman replaces in John’s retelling of the story of Jacob. To understand the full measure of this redemption is to “marvel” with the disciples.

The imagery of John 4 is a type scene. The patriarchs consistently met their wives at wells (Genesis 24; 29:1-14; Exodus 2:16-22). Within the symbolism the adulterous woman is being characterized as the bride to be. Once again, as in the case of Rahab, the woman is not condemned, despite her association with the figure of adultery. Reading between the lines, we are to see her as more sinned against than sinning. She appears to have been primarily the victim of previous husbands, who divorced her lightly, and a current partner who won’t give her the security of matrimony. While she is not without sin in these matters, hers is light by comparison with others. After meeting with Jesus, like Rachel meeting with Jacob (note that this all occurs at Jacob’s well: while not the same one as the one at which he met Rachel, the Jacob narrative is brought to mind), the woman runs to tell her people the good news (John 4:27-30; cf. Genesis 29:12-14).

Once we look beyond the texts referring to the sin of Israel in relationship to God, I think that the evidence is very illuminating for how the scriptures regard the high-water mark sins of harlotry and adultery, and the persons who should be accused of them. In practically every case it is the men who are presented as guilty, and the woman, her measure of sin being acknowledged, is not condemned.

In Genesis 38, Tamar is accused of being with child by harlotry. Unbeknownst to Judah, who thought that he was merely having intercourse with a random harlot, the child is his. Judah seeks to impose the most extreme of punishments upon Tamar, calling for her to be burned (38:24). However, when the truth of the matter is revealed, Judah was forced to acknowledge that Tamar had been more righteous than he had been (38:26).

In addition to John 4, where the woman of Samaria is not condemned for her past relationships, but addressed with grace, and presented in the typological role of one about to meet her true husband, John 8:1-11 presents us with another woman accused of the high-water mark sin of adultery. Although the woman was apparently caught in flagrante delicto, the man is nowhere to be seen. Jesus recognizes that the situation is a set-up, calling for the one without sin to cast the first stone. While often understood to be a call for sinlessness on the part of anyone who would condemn another party, this is not the case. The scriptures do not oppose a person who is less than morally perfect carrying out a legal sentence in such cases, even in the case of a death sentence.

To understand Jesus’ claim that the person who casts the first stone must be without sin, we must appreciate that it was the witnesses who had to cast the first stone in such cases (e.g. Deuteronomy 13:9; 17:7). A witness who set up another party, was somehow implicated in their sin, or bore false or malicious witness was liable to suffer the same penalty that he sought to impose (Deuteronomy 19:15-21), which was why he had to take such personal responsibility for the execution of the sentence. By calling for the witness who was without sin in the matter to cast the first stone, Jesus turned the tables on the woman’s accusers, revealing that, in the very matter in which they sought to accuse her, they are guilty parties, prepared to commit an offence worthy of capital punishment (there are other dimensions to the wisdom of Jesus’ statement here, but this particular aspect is the relevant one in the context of this discussion).

In light of such examples, I think that we should be more careful in our treatment of such whore imagery in the scriptures. There are times when such imagery is perfectly appropriate. When we are speaking of Israel’s high-handed rejection of YHWH, and serving of other gods and nations, the language of whoring and adultery is appropriate (and the fact that prostitution generally has economic more than sexual motivations is clearly displayed in the harlot figure of Revelation). It should serve to shock and appal us, and the reticence or unwillingness of the Scripture to justify the use of such condemnatory language in other instances only serves to strengthen the visceral revulsion that it should provoke within us.

Outside of appropriate uses of such imagery in the context of Israel’s unfaithfulness to God, the scriptures repeatedly draw attention to the mischaracterization of women as harlots or adulteresses. It reveals the wickedness of men that underlies most such characterizations of women – the sexual oppression of tyrannical men (in Rahab’s case), the double standards of men (in Tamar’s case), the unfaithfulness of men (in the case of the woman of Samaria), and the false accusations of men (in the case of the woman of John 8). It also repeatedly shows the redemption and vindication of women associated with the harlot figure.

For these and other reasons, I believe that it is fair to say that the Bible subverts the Madonna/Whore typology in various ways. The imagery of the whore is fairly focused on Israel in its biblical deployment, and those ways in which it serves as an archetype for a pole of female sexuality more widely are undermined. The burden of sexual responsibility that the Madonna/Whore dynamic places upon women is deconstructed in various contexts, and the capricious manner in which men use these characterizations to cover their own sins is highlighted. Women who might be associated with the figure of the whore in some sense are habitually presented as being enslaved by tyrannical, abusive, and cruel powers (generally male), rather than as high-handed sinners, and are treated with grace and restored to a state without stigma.

The prevalence of the whore figure in Scripture definitely brings great potential dangers with it. Handled without adequate thought or care, it could easily support the standard use of this characterization. However, I believe that closer attention to the broader text presents us with the means to establish clear semantic firewalls, limiting the term’s application to appropriate and highly specific contexts. Given the means to recognize the abusive ways in which this language is employed more generally, and how it serves to mask male sin, we have resources with which to oppose the sexual double standard of our society.

Perhaps the thing that troubles me most about Richard’s post is the readiness with which a reading that subverts the clear meaning of the text in order to rein it in to contemporary convictions is adopted. It seems to me to manifest a troubling lack of patience and faith in God’s wisdom in Scripture. Sometimes we must tarry in the darkness of difficult passages and not give up or let go of God’s word, trusting that the light and revelation of God’s goodness will burst forth even in them, and being willing to live with questions, doubts, uncertainties, and frayed ends in the meantime.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Bible, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The Whore and the Bible

  1. PDuggie says:

    Nice citation of that APA article.

  2. PDuggie says:

    It also strikes me that the women aren’t literal, they are depictions of two cities, and the whore is certainly the actual city of Jerusalem, which was run by a pack of men. So in one sense, the bible is recognizing the proffered dynamic. The sins of that pack of men are projected as a insatiable whore.

    One would also have to pull in the comment in Ezekiel that Jerusalem-as-whore is rather unique: unlike regular old economic prostitutes who do it for money, Jerusalem is a buffoonish whore who pays her johns, because she *is* into it for the lust (symbolically: lust for horses and chariots: the weapons of warfare)

  3. Pingback: Why I Believe in Pre-Marital Virginity | Alastair's Adversaria

  4. Tracey says:

    I can’t tell you what a relief it is to read your perspective on this. As one who constantly feels mischaracterised, and that by evangelical men, I was beginning to wonder whether there could possibly exist even one single man, apart from our Lord Jesus, who could be bothered to engage a true evangelical mind and have any gracious thoughts about women. Praise God that the earth is not entirely barren.

  5. Pingback: A Look Back at 2012 on Alastair’s Adversaria | Alastair's Adversaria

  6. Pingback: The Cup of the Adulteress: Understanding the Jealousy Ritual of Numbers 5 | Alastair's Adversaria

  7. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2011-2012 | Alastair's Adversaria

  8. Pingback: #Luke2Acts—Some Notes on John 3 to 13 | Alastair's Adversaria

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s