Taking a fresh look at the bad girls of the Bible

It’s taken me a while to get around to the theme of this month’s blog, and I have debated with myself even about the title. Second-guessing myself whether I should even discuss the historical sexualisation of female Biblical characters.

Who are the bad girls referred to in the title? These are the women who history has not dealt kindly with. From Eve, who seduced Adam into the first sin, Rahab, always referred to as a prostitute, and Bathsheba, whose rooftop bathing caused David to fall into adultery. The sinful unnamed woman with long hair who washed Jesus’s feet with her tears. The woman at the well with five husbands and now living in sin with another man, and Mary Magdalene, the poster bad girl of them all.

What do these women have in common? Answer: we have historically viewed their behaviour as corrupt and sinful, especially in a sexual sense. Even their faith called into question and their character undermined. Not by what we read in the text of the Bible, but in how they have been viewed by Christians in the past, and all this still affects our thinking today. Giving generations of artists an excuse to paint salacious images of these women under the heading of “religious art”, some of which appear in this blog.

I’ve been a Christian and attended church for decades, listened to countless sermons and Bible studies on women in the Bible and believed what is said about them, often without questioning until recently.  

It’s well past time to take a fresh look at these bad girls.

To be clear about what this is not. This is not a drive to be more politically correct, or make the Bible more culturally relevant for the 21st century. But a close review of the text as it appears in the Bible. (Please note, our English translations from Hebrew or Greek are fraught with all kinds of mistranslations.) I want to be faithful to the original text, not to question the infallibility of the scriptures, just the infallibility of our interpretation.

Hermeneutics is about examining the Biblical text and interpreting what it means. A simple explanation for a very complex topic. The goal of hermeneutics is to discover the truths and values of the Bible. Not to look at it with a subjective or tainted lens, but to discern what the intended meaning of the passage was, both for the original readers and for us today.

We all approach the Bible with our own thoughts, opinions, preconceived ideas, and prejudices. It is very difficult not to interpret scripture in the light of what we have always been taught. Instead of fearing a fresh approach, especially of the bad girls, we should daily re-examine our interpretations. Unless, of course, you have already figured everything out. I know I haven’t.

The woman with an appointment with Jesus 

Let’s look at one of these bad girls. In my March 2022 blog, my fictional Roman journalist, Aemilia Metella, interviewed the woman who spoke to Jesus by the well in Samaria. (Add link here). During my research about her, I was stuck at how I have viewed her in the past, and how that affects how I respond to her story today.

When you think about the Samaritan woman at the well in John chapter 4, what comes to mind?

·         She had been married five times and was now living in sin with a man who was not her husband.

·         She was at the well at noon, because as a serial adulteress she was a social outcast and could not go with the other good women who drew water at daybreak.

·         She tried to deflect Jesus when he challenged her about her life.

If these ideas come to your mind, don’t be surprised. It’s what came into my mind until very recently. That is until I took a fresh look at her.

What is the story really about?

John, in his gospel, often portrays people who are seeking faith, and this woman is no exception. Jesus could have gone around Samaria, which was a custom for Jewish people, but he chose to go there. Some versions say he had to go there. After stopping at the well, he sent his disciples to the village for lunch. He sat down and waited for this unnamed woman to come along because he had an appointment with her.

Let’s have a look at these three common misconceptions.

Her marriage status- There are many reasons she may have been married five times. Girls married young, possibly by their mid-teens and often to older men. Life expectancy was short, and it is quite possible she was widowed five times. Divorce was not unheard of, and a woman could initiate a divorce, but she would need help from a male supporter to do so. 

We can also miss how difficult it was for a single woman to survive. Perhaps by this time as an older woman, her chances of a sixth marriage were unlikely. She might have to choose between starvation and exploitation or living with a man without being married. We cannot judge a woman for her limited choices, because Jesus did not condemn or shame her, but he showed her he knew all about her. 

She was an outcast – How do we know she did not regularly go to the well at daybreak for a good chin wag with the other women? She may have run out of water because she was doing the washing, she had guests around or knocked over the water jar. One thing we know is that she had an appointment with Jesus, and had to be there at noon to meet him.

The end of the story sees her leaving the water jar by the side of the well and running back to the village to tell everyone she had met the Messiah. The villagers listen to her and come immediately to meet Jesus. If she was an outcast, they would be more likely to ignore her.

She changed the subject – After Jesus revealed to her he was aware of her past life, she asked him where the right place to worship God is. Why do we assume she changed the subject because she was shamed, rather than she had a genuine theological question to ask Jesus? She listened intently before running off to tell her neighbours she has found the Messiah.

I normally love The Passion Translation, but here it misses the mark. In verse 19, we read, “The woman changed the subject.” And in verse 25, she says, “This is all so confusing.” Now, why did the writers of The Passion think she would be confused? The language we read in our English translations affects how we interact with the characters.

I write this blog in the week after accusations against Angela Rayner, a British Member of Parliament and deputy leader of the Labour party. An unnamed conservative MP has accused her of crossing and uncrossing her legs to distract the Prime Minister. Angela grew up on a housing estate in the north of England and left school pregnant at 16. Therefore, the article said, she could not possibly engage the Eton educated Prime Minister in debate. And so she must use her sexual attraction to get what she wants. The Prime Minister and leaders of all parties in the British Parliament have come out in support. But by labelling this intelligent, confident, determined, and strong-willed woman as a bad girl, there is yet again an attempt to belittle and silence a woman because of her sex.  

I hope this fresh look at the Samaritan woman meeting Jesus and Aemilia’s interview with her in the March blog has made you think about this misunderstood woman differently. Rather than being confused and changing the subject, she discusses theology with Jesus, and he is happy to do so with her. One other thing to add. This is the longest recorded conversation in the gospels of Jesus with anyone, and it is with this unnamed Samaritan woman. That in itself should make us take a fresh look.

Next month Aemilia Metella will interview Mary Magdalene. Read her story of how she met Jesus, stayed at the cross and was the first to see him alive again.

Penitent Magdalene by Titian, 1531

Mary Magdalene, the poster bad girl of them all.

The Fall of Man By Titian

Their faith called into question and their character undermined.

Christ and the Woman of Samaria, George Richmond, 1828

We cannot judge a woman for her limited choices, because Jesus did not.

Rahab, by Ted Seth Jacobs

We should daily re-examine our interpretations.

Bethsabee by Jean-Leon Gerome 1889
Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee by Reubans 1678 -1620

By labelling this intelligent, confident, determined, and strong-willed woman as a bad girl, there is yet again an attempt to belittle and silence a woman because of her sex.  

Susan Sutherland is the author of Leaving Bethany, a historical Biblical fiction novel written from the point of view of Martha of Bethany, a friend of Jesus. The sequel, Return to Caesarea, will be out in early 2023.

If you liked the blog, why not join Susan’s mailing list and receive a free copy of her eBook, The Interviews of Aemilia Metella?

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