Phyllis Trible comes to Juba?

It may not sound like it from some of my other posts but I actually am attending classes here. And I sat in on a really great one last week with the senior students – “Theology from the Perspective of African Women.”

The conversation was about what the Creation story(ies) have to say about the relationship between men and women. To begin, the students offered some opinions – since God created men first, men take priority; the woman is a helper for men. The class knew about the different accounts of creation and the J source and the P source. They discussed how, if at all, these accounts fit together.

But then the teacher, an Italian Baptist (who knew they existed?), started looking at the Hebrew. The class looked at all the different Hebrew words that are used for “[hu]mankind,” “male,” “female,” “man,” and “woman,” and how adam is used differently in the two accounts. It reminded me of the article we read in my Old Testament class last year by noted feminist scholar Phyllis Trible.

The class was very engaged to this point, following the Hebrew and asking good questions. Just before the break, one student said, “But God still made man before woman,” implying that gave greater precedence to men. “But what did God create before man?” “Animals,” replied the student. “So should animals be in charge of men?” Then we took a break during which there was conversation about whether Dinkas, a pastoralist people, should let their cattle be in charge. We talked in that break about what it means to be created “in the image of God” and what it is that humans have that animals don’t. When I said that animals can’t think (meaning that they can’t reason in the same way as humans), one Dinka student told me, “But the cows know to stay away when it is time to slaughter one of them!”

After the break, we looked at some passages from Paul about gender relations – I Cor. 14:34 and Gal. 3:28 and Rom. 16.

To this point – except for the conversation about cows during the break – this was all material I had covered in previous classes at YDS. But then the class took the conversation to a level we never reached at YDS. They began to think out loud about how their cultural backgrounds influenced how they read the Bible, the relationship between Bible and culture, what is lost and gained by looking at gender relations in the Bible in a new light, whether this new interpretation is just an imposition of white people, how the cultural background of the authors of the Bible influenced their views, and so on. What was so interesting is that because the students represent so many different tribes, each has different cultural beliefs and practices regarding gender relations. I stayed quiet while student after student contributed to what was a remarkable and wide-ranging conversation.

I don’t think everyone was on the same page by the end of the class and it’s not like gender relations are suddenly going to improve because of this one session. But the major conclusion the class agreed on during the conversation was that if we approach the Bible with preconceived notions we will likely find them confirmed in the text. One student, realizing this, asked, “What in our culture is going along with the Bible? And what is not? And how can we challenge our people to follow along with the Bible and do away with what is not following the Bible?”

Good questions to ask ourselves, I think.

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