6.20.2012

God and Images of Rape in Jeremiah

I rarely feel alienated by gender-exclusive language. I am comfortable reading ‘man,’  ‘mankind,’  ‘he,’  ‘his,’ etc. as inclusive of me, a woman. (I feel similarly when reading novels with predominantly male characters.) I don’t know why I feel this way (I could speculate) and I certainly don’t draw any ideological conclusions from this; it’s just the way I am. Overall, I am rarely aware of my gender while reading.

Sometimes, though, I approach a passage and am suddenly very aware of my gender, and how my gender alters my reading of the text.

Let us consider Jeremiah 20:7.

My handy ESV (if you doubted that I was comfortable with gender exclusive language, the fact that I predominantly use an ESV should convince you, although I really own it because it was the most convenient wide-margin Bible I could find) renders this verse,

“O Lord, you have deceived me,
and I was deceived;
you are stronger than I,
and you have prevailed.”

I can’t get much useful meaning out of the first two lines; I’ve never experienced God as a deception. The second two lines strike me as even less useful. Yes, God is stronger than mortals. Is this news? Nevertheless, it’s inoffensive.

I’m reading Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Prophets, and he makes an entirely  convincing argument that the proper rendering of the verse is,

“O Lord, Thou hast seduced me,
And I am seduced;
Thou hast raped me
And I am overcome.”

That makes, theologically, a heck of a lot more sense. It’s much more powerful language. I get it. It ‘opens’ the verse for me, and gives me a new perspective on the prophetic experience. Here’s Heschel:
“This interpretation betrays an ambivalence in the prophet’s understanding of his own experience. The call to be a prophet is more than an invitation. It is first of all a feeling of being enticed, of acquiescence or willing surrender. But this winsome feeling is only one aspect of the experience. The other aspect is a sense of being ravished or carried away by violence, of yielding to overpowering force against one’s will. The prophet feels both the attraction and the coercion of God, the appeal and the pressure, the charm and the stress. He is conscious of both voluntary identification and forced capitulation.”

Yes. Absolutely, yes. That speaks to my experience of God. I have felt coerced, enthralled, overcome. There is appeal and pressure, charm and stress. “All your waves and your billows have gone over me!”

And yet.

As a woman, the image of God as rapist gives me the heebie-jeebies. Surely I cannot be the only person to feel likewise—hence, presumably, the more neutral rendering of even a conservative, literal translation like the ESV. I can get over my distaste, but just barely, and I’ve never been sexually assaulted. I imagine this translation would be much more problematic for someone who has. Yes, the prophet is speaking about a loving coercion—but rape is never loving; rape is terrifying and horrible. Yes, part of the prophet’s point is that a genuine experience of God can include fear—but that is fear caused by the prophet’s human experience of an overwhelming Divine, not fear caused by a woman’s victimization. Yes, I see the point, and find the metaphor useful—but it still makes my stomach squirm.

I find myself very interested when I notice my gender intersecting with my reading of a text. (I am assuming that women are more likely to be uncomfortable with this passage than men; perhaps that is a false assumption.) Ultimately, despite my qualms, I find this rendering of the passage useful and compelling—and I wonder what that says about me and my approach to the Bible.

I wonder if I would find this passage equally useful without my queasiness. (I felt similarly queasy all the way through Lolita, and know I wouldn’t remember that book so vividly or find it so compelling without its ability to induce a vague nausea.) I wonder where the line is between language that provokes us into deeper thought, and language that is simply offensive—language that pushes our limits, and language that is too far outside of them for us to follow.

While reading this passage of Heschel, I couldn’t stop thinking about Donne. One of his Holy Sonnets uses very similar imagery to convey a slightly different, but related, point. I don’t feel any queasiness about this sonnet. I love it whole-heartedly:
Batter my heart, three person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov'd fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me. 
I’m not entirely sure why I find this language less problematic than the language in Jeremiah. Part of it is because this speaker is much more clearly longing to be overcome. Part of it is that ‘ravishment’ is part of a whole spectrum of forceful imagery (batter, break, blow, burn, imprison, enthrall), not the predominant image. Part of it is simply that I love Donne and, in a weird way, ‘trust’ him more than I trust the author of Jeremiah. Part of it is that the word ‘ravish’ has a whole different range of connotation for a modern reader than the word ‘rape’ does.

When, if at all, is it ever acceptable for a writer to use images of rape in this way? Does it change depending on the gender of the author? Does it change depending on the context they were writing in?

How do others notice their gender identity affecting their reading of the Bible?