26 August 2015

Vashti: Museum Piece

Esther 1

What is a wife?
An ornament?
A pretty vase
to look at,
play with,
and then put away
till another day?
What am I to you?
A decoration?
I don't exist
until you want me
or want to show me off
like a rare artefact,
a prized possession.

Why can't you see me?
Why can't you see
that I don't want admiration
but love?
I don't want to be
your museum piece,
don't want to be
a picture on your wall
or a statue
to grace your halls.

I want to be
etched into your heart,
a part of you
you can't live without.
I want to be more
than my lovely face,
for when my beauty fades,
what will I be then?
A moth-eaten garment,
a crumbling masterpiece,
a faded painting
worth nothing to you.
Why can't you see me?

So tonight
I'll put my foot down
and stand up for myself
and for women everywhere.
Disobedience? Who cares -
it has to be said,
it has to be done.
We are not your ornaments,
your pretty little things,
collectors' items,
fine rare gems.
We are people
with hearts and souls,
with needs and wishes.
We want more.

Treat me like a human being.
Love me,
see me,
hear me.
Rather than be called a beauty
I would have you look
when I'm my ugliest
and say you love me
for me.

I put my foot down.
I disobey.
I'm your museum piece
no more.


 [January 2012]

Vashti was the wife of King Xerxes before Esther became queen to replace her. The king called her to show her off to guests at a feast - and she refused to come. It's interesting how some interpreters admire her for it, while others see her actions as wrong, an act of disobedience. Here's my take on the story.

The whole idea of wives being treated like ornaments or pretty vases comes very much from the influence of my very feminist best friend, who I am certain used those exact words once. Also, the "masterpiece" idea came from A Room with a View, where Cecil (a rather unlikeable guy haha) likes to call Lucy (the main character) "my Leonardo". If I remember right she also stands up to him about that once.

It is nice to be called pretty, but in the end we are more than that. If someone likes you for your looks, they won't like you for very long. Because unless we die early we all end up wrinkled and crinkled (which I find really beautiful and cute btw). We're all more than our looks - men and women both. We can't prevent attraction to looks (I think that's quite natural), but it shouldn't be all.

And I think an important verse for this poem is Ephesians 5:25. "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her." It's not right to place a wrong emphasis on the part about wives submitting to their husbands while ignoring this second, equally important part!

Picture by Gustave Doré

23 August 2015

Mahalath: Seventy-Seven Times

2. Chronicles 11:18-23

I was the first,
and in daydreams I thought
that I'd be your Only One.
(Stupid daydreams
of a foolish girl.)
Maybe it meant nothing
to you,
those first kisses,
those times you came to me
and murmured sweet words
as we fell asleep.
Maybe it was too much
to expect you to love me,
when love was not
what you married me for.

You have replaced me
seventy-seven times.
Now when you come
I wonder why you do.
I want you to leave,
take your dirty hands off me,
hands that have touched
too many others
who lie awake now
like I have done,
crying bitter tears
you have betrayed us
seventy-seven times
and being loved by a poor man
is better than this.

He was your first,
and in daydreams I thought
that he would be king.
(Stupid daydreams
of a foolish girl.)
For you chose another:
you loved her more than me,
and her son more than mine.
Maybe it is too much
to expect you to love me,
but wasn't he
what you married me for?

You have replaced me
seventy-seven times;
now you replace
your first-born son.
I don't want your love -
it is worth nothing now,
when your son suffers
because you can't love me.
You have betrayed me
seventy-seven times;
now you betray him,
and being a poor man's son
is better than this.

[23. August 2015]

I did not know Mahalath until this morning... she was the first wife of Rehoboam, son of Solomon, the king under whom the kingdoms of Israel and Judah divided. Reading 2. Chronicles 11, I noticed that although one of Mahalath's sons would have been the fist-born son, Rehoboam chose another to follow him as king - Abijah, the son of his favourite wife, Maacah (V. 21-22). I can imagine that this could have caused considerable conflict and jealousy between the wives. That's how this emerged... this is on the one hand about the consequences of polygamy (jealousy, feeling betrayed), on the other hand about the "replacement" of the firstborn with a later-born son of a preferred wife.

Rehoboam had 18 wives and 60 concubines - in total, 78. That's where the "seventy-seven" comes from: 77 other wives after Mahalath. Mahalath's first son was Jeush; he probably was the first-born.

Picture by Michelangelo.

16 August 2015

Adah: The Curse

Genesis 4:19-24

"Your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you." (Genesis 3:16b)

Why do I keep coming back to you?
Why do I seek what causes me pain?
Why do I rush into the arms of my prison?
Why do I repeat the same mistakes?

So many times I could have left -
what made me stay?
So many times I had had enough,
enough of your violence,
your senseless cruelty.
What drew me back?

What keeps me here
with a vengeful man,
a cruel man,
who repays manifold
the smallest injury,
who sows anger
and reaps hate,
perpetuates this darkness
we're already living in?

Why do I not
take my children by the hand,
turn my back,
run far away?
What keeps me here
under your thumb,
dirt beneath your feet,
flesh to be used and cast aside,
the brunt of your fury?

Is it hope that you'll change,
or that I might change you?
Is it desire for the father of my sons?
Is it pure stupidity,
or fear, paralysing me?
Or is this a curse,
running through my veins,
binding me to my pain?

I want to love you,
but loving you is pain.
I want to leave you,
but find myself trapped
in a web of dependence,
of responsibility.
I want to be your helper,
surrounding you with love -
but love is not enough
and it's destroying me.


[July/August 2015]

I have been wanting to write a poem about Gen 3:16b for years. Mainly because it's the verse that comes to my mind every time I allow a man to hurt me and get away with it. Of course not as an excuse for not standing up against him, but as a description of the tendency to pretend whatever upsets you about him is "not so bad" because of your feelings for him. Caring for someone can blind against his faults, sometimes to the extent that one even accepts some pretty bad treatment before realising it doesn't have to be that way.

Anyway, I put myself in Adah and Zillah's shoes a bit... (whose situation is way more extreme than anything I experienced.) Lamech is described as a violent man, swearing vengeance on anyone who causes him the smallest hurt, so I imagine he would not have been the kindest of husbands either. Since he proclaims his "oath" before his wives, I suppose it's a warning to them too, not to come against him. So this is basically about how despite suffering under her husband, Adah finds herself unable to leave...

I do believe it would be better for her to leave. Also, I don't think Gen 3:16b "binds" anyone to an abusive relationship. But leaving is not easy - and those days it was even harder, since women were so dependent on men for protection. Sometimes it's clear what one should do (e.g. in this case: leaving an abusive husband), but other things like fear, dependence, responsibility etc. get in the way or make decisive action harder!

(Often for lesser-known Bible women I write a "shared poem", since writing two points of view on the same thing - especially if it takes a lot of imagination to figure out the story behind women who are mentioned only by name, with little or no additional info - doesn't always work out. This time, though, I'm splitting the pair because I had two ideas. Zillah's poem might follow soon.)

Picture by Jan Sadeler.

15 August 2015

Mary: Profane Temple

Solomon brought Pharaoh’s daughter from the city of David to the house that he had built for her, for he said, "My wife shall not live in the house of King David of Israel, for the places to which the ark of the Lord has come are holy." (2. Chronicles 8:11)

And the Word became flesh. (John 1:14a)

I am darkness.
I am earth.
I am body
giving birth.
Life and death
bleed out from me.
I am chaos,

This far, no further -
no nearer to God.
For what has body
to do with spirit?
What has earth
to do with sky?
What has the profane
to do with the holy?
What has darkness
to do with light?

I am darkness.
I am earth.
Unclean, unholy,
separated by a wall
from the presence of God.
This far, no further
than the boundary line.

What has light
to do with darkness?
What has the holy
to do with the profane?
What has spirit
to do with body?
What has the Word
to do with flesh?

And yet
became flesh.

And yet
chose woman
to be your temple.

You chose darkness.
You chose earth.
You chose body.
You chose birth.
You chose this lowly maiden,
my earth-bound body;
You filled this profane vessel
with You.

From now on all
will call me blessed,
and all will be blessed
through me.


[15. August 2015]

A few things flowed into this...
  • Upon reading 2. Chron 8, I got stuck on v.11: Solomon removing his wife from the palace because that would be too near the temple, and a woman shouldn't be so near. In the time of Jesus, the temple was in fact split in different sections, and women could only go as far as the women's court (hence "separated by a wall"). This has to do with menstruation (during which a woman would be "unclean") - alluded to with the line "Life and death / bleed out from me".
  • (Unbelievably) I still remember something from a religious studies class 4+ years ago, when we were looking at Mary Douglas' Purity and Danger. Mary Douglas studied concepts of ritual purity, and the idea of "liminality" (being on the borderline, neither "out" nor "in") was quite important there. If I remember correctly, menstruation is a liminal phase, which is why it is seen as "unclean" in the Old Testament (and other cultures even today!) and possibly why women were kept at a distance from holy things.
  • In Chinese philosophy there is the dualist concept of yin 陰 and yang 陽 which you might have heard of. Yin is the feminine principle, yang the masculine. Yin is associated with the dark, cold, wet, negative, passive, female, earth, and things hidden. I decided to pick that up ("I am darkness" etc.), since it fits to the idea of the feminine belonging to an "unholy" or liminal sphere. Originally, yin and yang were meant to be complementary and equally important - still, the masculine (yang) elements are generally seen as more "positive" and valued higher. Interesting: the whole yin/yang division is not just Chinese, but occurs in Western thought too, where the spiritual was often given more worth than the physical, and where women were looked upon as less worthy to concern themselves with religious things due to their being more "physical" (Greek philosophy and medieval thinking goes in that direction).
  • I have referred a bit to "chaos" and "this far, no further"... In Ancient Near Eastern religion, the world was divided into "cosmos" and "chaos". Symbol for chaos was the sea. Some of this thinking is visible in the OT where it speaks of God setting boundaries for the sea, conquering ancient chaos monsters like Leviathan and Rahab (e.g. in Job, Psalms). I decided to sprinkle in these references too, since the feminine is sometimes also associated with uncontrollable nature and stuff like that.
Seeing how the feminine sphere had a rather vague connection to the holy and to God, what God did in the incarnation (= becoming flesh) is pretty astounding. Also considering how "flesh" and body were looked down upon in Greek thought around the time of Jesus (and long afterwards).

God became flesh. And God was born from a woman. In fact He spent 9 months in a womb. Pretty extreme stuff! And I think: what privilege! For Mary, who became God's temple, the house within which God's presence dwelt, during the time of her pregnancy. But also for all of us, because every Christian is given the immense honour of becoming a temple of the Holy Spirit. When I read Old Testament texts about the temple, I can only marvel at the privilege God has given us. Because direct access to the holy used to be pretty complicated, especially for women, what with all the rules about clean/unclean.

We women no longer have to be kept at a distance from the holy. We can go to church normally. We can partake of Communion / the Eucharist (the real presence of Jesus!) and no one asks us whether we're having our period. God pours out His Spirit upon men and women (Joel 2). Because God showed us in Mary that the female body can be a temple too.