Fidèle Gandonou Houssou

Reading The Bible Differently 

La Bible est couramment utilisée pour nier l’égalité entre la femme et l’homme et conforter la vision patriarcale de la société. Du coup se pose la question grave : doit-on rejeter la Bible elle-même, dans son ensemble, comme un pur produit de l’idéologie patriarcale et du chauvinisme mâle ? Ou doit-on au contraire s’atteler à lire l’Ecriture autrement qu’elle ne l’ait été jusqu’ici? En prêtant attention aux contradictions internes de la Bible et en privilégiant, parmi ses récits et prescriptions, ceux qui valorisent la femme et proclament l’égalité des sexes devant Dieu, quelques auteur/e/s– provenant de Occident et de l’Afrique – ont répondu à ces interrogations. Ce travail est une orientation de la lecture de la Bible en vue de l’épanouissement de l’homme et de la femme dans la société.

The Bible is commonly used in certain environments to deny equality between women and men and reinforce a patriarchal vision of society. Additionally, certain feminist studies have shown that the biblical text reflects an openly androcentric perspective. Thus the serious question arises: do we have to reject the Bible itself, as a whole, as a product of patriarchal ideology and male chauvinism? Or should we rather avoid „throwing the baby out with the bath water“ and get down to reading the Scripture differently than it has been so far, paying attention to its internal contradictions and favouring among its stories and prescriptions those which value women and proclaim gender equality before God? I will answer this question in dialogue with two approaches that haven’t rejected the Bible, but made a new reading: The first one coming from the Occident, and the second one coming from Africa.


The Bible is commonly used in certain environments to deny equality between women and men and reinforce the patriarchal vision of society. Additionally, certain feminist studies have shown that the biblical texts reflect an openly androcentric perspective. Thus, the serious question arises: do we have to reject the Bible itself, as a whole, as a product of patriarchal ideology and male chauvinism? Or, should we rather avoid „throwing the baby out with the bath water“ and get down to reading the Scripture differently than it has been so far, paying attention to its internal contradictions and favouring among its stories and prescriptions those which value women and proclaim gender equality before God? I will answer this question in dialogue with two approaches that haven’t rejected the Bible, but made a new reading: The first one coming from the Occident, and the second one coming from Africa.

A feminist reading of the Bible in the Occident

 I will look at initiatives of biblical rereading that have two principal characteristics: the initiative of publishing a Bible that puts the focus on women, and an analysis of the Bible that rehabilitates women, both being characterised by a great freedom of approach.

Publishing another Bible: “The Woman’s Bible”[1]

The Woman’s Bible is a book in two volumes, the first of which appeared in 1895 and the second in 1898. This publication aligns itself in a context marked by the struggle of the suffragists in the United States for the right of women to vote. Written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and a committee of twenty-six women, it is primarily a militant publication to combat the traditional religious orthodoxy according to which women were less than human and made to be at men’s service.

To demolish this wall of prejudice was the aim of offering another reading of the Bible, a reading that frees women instead of enslaving them. So we observe in Chapter one of The Woman’s Bible the clear difference between two accounts of creation in the book of Genesis: the first story in Genesis 1, 26-28, where it appears that man and woman were created simultaneously, and a second story, that of Genesis 2, 21-25, where the woman appears to have been created after the man from one of his ribs.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her friends sought to show that the inferiority of women is nowhere truly taught in the Bible, but that everything points to her really being the equal of man or, in some cases, even superior to him. Thus in the story of the forbidden fruit, the reaction of Adam facing the interpellation of the Creator seems indescribably spineless. This is certainly not the behaviour of a superior being:

He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.”(Genesis 3,11–12, NRSV)

Then the authors observe the literal meaning of the word Eve in Hebrew which is “Life”:

“The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living.” (Genesis 3,20).

What a pity, they add, that all versions of the Bible have preferred to keep the Hebrew word Eve instead of translating it! As the woman is indeed Life, the eternal mother, the first representative of the worthier and more important half of the human race.

These first three chapters are enough to give an idea of the whole book. However, we know the rest of the story: The Woman’s Bible was disavowed by the suffrage movement, whose fight it had sought to reinforce. At the 28th Annual Meeting of the American Association for the vote for women in Washington in January 1896, the book was roundly attacked.[2] Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her friends made their right point too soon. They were ahead of their time.

Rehabilitating the history of the women of the Bible

In the Gospel of Mark, the story of the Passion highlights three characters: on the one hand two of the Twelve, Judas and Peter, of which one betrays Jesus, while the other denies him, and on the other hand a woman whose name is not mentioned, who perfumes Jesus with a valuable perfume. While some disciples whisperingly disapproved of the gesture of this woman, Jesus overhears them and declares:

Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her. (Marc 14,9)

Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza takes the title of her book In Memory of Her[3] from this story, with the aim of “…reconstruct(ing) early Christian history as women’s history in order not only to restore women’s stories to early Christian history, but also to reclaim this history as the history of women and men[4].

In Memory of Her is a powerful and serious attempt to rehabilitate the history of women in the Bible stories as well as the apostolic and ecclesial movement of the early Christian communities. It is a solid attempt of restitution of the role and the place of women in biblical and church history. This reconstruction allows us to discover the history of early Christianity as a history of men and women, in contrast to what is accepted in the popular consciousness, which takes this history as simply a story of men. The goal of critical feminist hermeneutics of liberation is to take back in possession the importance and power of women in the Bible and in the history of early Christianity.[5]

A liberty of approach

The way in which Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza proceeds is a veritable liberty of approach that situates God’s word in a dynamic of life, a word that joins in everyday life. It liberates God’s word from all contingencies, be they historical, editorial, or cultural, and to find it exactly as Jesus gives it. In this sense, the author proposes a pastoral paradigm.[6] This paradigm takes into account the needs and realities of the faith community and responds to them. It is about a critical and theological evaluation of the biblical texts in the everyday life of Christians. It isn’t limited only to revealing what the author and the text wanted to say, but examines also, in a critical way, the theological pertinence of the text for the present situation of the faith community. This new paradigm holds both ends of the chain at the same time: the pastoral situation and its theological response, the historical and the theological aspect, the past and the present.

The acknowledgement of this pastoral paradigm in the African context will avoid folklores and hypocrisies, bad interpretations and applications of biblical texts to the experience of women. For example when topics such as the wearing of a veil, the submission of women, women speaking in the group, and the participation of women in the life of society are addressed, a feminist hermeneutic of liberation is essential. For example, what is the contemporary theological importance of the requirement to wear a veil during prayer or the Holy Communion in an African context? To what degree does the veil liberate us? Is it essential to our relation with God? In what way does it liberate women when they are denied participation in Church service during their period of menstruation? These questions are worth asking when we know that Jesus did not condemn the touch of the bleeding woman, healing her instead.

What is important today for the interpretation of the Bible is not only a good historical understanding of the meaning of the texts, but also a theological and critical evaluation of their role in the history of the Church of today. This freedom of approach to the Word is a way to feel free vis-à-vis the received text and to discover the liberating Word of Jesus. Then the Word will no longer be seen as an archetype but as a prototype.

A paradigm of suspicion

In order to reclaim the true face of the Gospel, Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza develops an approach that starts from the paradigm of suspicion. This is the suspicion of androcentrism and patriarchy,[7] which postulates that the Bible is a representation of the patriarchal version of the history of the Early Church. In this way, it has often served to justify the exclusion and marginalization of women within Church and society. This patriarchal footprint is expressed in several ways: There has been a progressive „patriarchalization“ in the institution of the Church, a hierarchical structuring of ecclesial functions according to a relational schema of submission / domination. In the process, oppression was practiced against women and led to their marginalization and elimination from leadership. In the books that have been preserved and canonized, the essential role played by women was erased as much as possible. However, recognizable traces stress that the texts that have survived are more prescriptive than descriptive. The Church Fathers have supported and defended patriarchy by their heavily misogynist interpretation. Traditional academic exegesis works with an androcentric worldview. Biblical culture and its dominant interpretation come from men who unconsciously support patriarchal domination. Yet there are traces in the Bible that reflect a different view of women. These traces allow a reconstruction of the actual history of women in the time of early Christianity.

Therefore, the paradigm of suspicion is a means of resisting the rampant biblical fundamentalism in African communities. It prohibits consideration of the biblical texts as immutable, frozen truths and guards against the temptation of global rejection of the Bible. It leads us to question any biblical text and investigates its function in relation to the reality of women. Thus, it helps break the silence of the biblical texts and recover the erased or ignored historical reality. This work is still urgently needed in our communities today, as the Christian woman wants to identify with the female characters of the Bible. It would be no exaggeration to equate the faith community in Africa to that in which the movement of Jesus and the Church grew, a patriarchal society. African Christianity has experienced and continues to perpetuate even today the same process of androcentrism and patriarchalism. A methodology of suspicion is essential for women and men in our communities today, who have to sift through the gospel as it is preached in order to regain its liberating and inclusive face.

 In Memory of Her works to detect and analyze the forgotten traces of women in the biblical story in order to give women of today the necessary elements for their full integration, liberation and fulfilment. This comprehensive feminist rereading of Scripture emphasizes the role of women, their responsibility and their various struggles against patriarchy in the Jesus movement and the evangelizing mission. Faced with African women who take refuge in prayer cells and other Church structures in order to thrive, this reading challenges us and points out that the refuge in ambient spirituality must lead to the liberation and happiness of men and women in total integrity.

A feminist reading of the Scriptures in Africa

In Africa, some have undertaken to reread the Bible by developing a new hermeneutic at the service of the liberation of women. The reflections of Marie-France Bayedila Bawunina and Marcellin Sètondji Dossou[8] merit attention. They have examined the liberating relevance of some texts of the New Testament. They reveal the change of the Gospel message through the texts on the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:1–16) and the attitude of Jesus toward the adulterous woman (John 8:1–11). This subversive discourse that the authors call the „feminist revolution of Christ“[9] can change the fate of African women. What it proposes is nothing other than an ethics of creative femininity and an ethics of a liberating new beginning.

An ethics of creative femininity

This ethics is developed by Marie-France Bayedila Bawunina through the female figures in the family tree of Jesus. In this genealogy, there are five female figures: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba[10] and Mary. Ideally, these female figures should be role models within patriarchal society. However, their stories show that they are far from being exemplary women who followed the guidelines of submission, silence, blind obedience, of a moralizing virtue aimed at pleasing and respecting the will of the man. In a word, they are not estimable women for a patriarchal society, and yet they are the ones that the genealogical list takes into account. If this is the case, what justifies their inclusion in the family tree of Jesus?

The mention of these women in the genealogy of Jesus is marked by this creative and liberating will that these women have highlighted by exceeding the laws of society that make women an eternally despised, raped, rejected, humiliated and subjected person. Through their courage and determination, these „Mothers of Jesus Christ“ were able to face the problems that were their own and gave themselves a name, an identity, by contributing to the realization of salvation. In this way, their lives and their experience of affirmation and creativity challenge us as women, so we can not only believe but also choose the possibility of exchanging an alienating existence for social stability and peace. Theirs is the fate of the woman who stands as a free person working for the establishment of a society of responsibility, creative action, solidarity, vitality, fulfilment, prosperity, and shared happiness. For these women, transformation is a bold business that consists in shaping events rather than suffering them. Their stories reveal that God remains beyond our representations, our institutions, our expectations and our social rules. He reveals himself to whom and how he wants in Jesus Christ, through whom he accords us liberation and salvation. It is with this conviction that women can live in this world and succeed in the mission to which God has called them. It is with this conviction that women can live in this world and fulfil the mission to which God has called them. It is urgent for both women and men, being all of the same blood, the same mind and seeking the same salvation in Jesus Christ, to construct an ethics of belief, responsibility and commitment. This is a process of deconditioning, which allows us to think and to live femininity beyond the patriarchal way and to break the socio-cultural shackles and moulds that hinder women in the development of their creative energy.[11] These women surprise us through a story that depicts a feminist mind:

With Tamar (Genesis 38), the ethics of creative femininity is conceived as a spirit of initiative and commitment to change the order of things in the perspective of the promotion of women’s rights. There is a fairly significant transgression of the law in her story: the disrespect of the levirate law through the refusal of insemination and the dismissal of Tamar back home without listening to her. She thus faces a bad situation as a beloved, sexually abused victim of the customs, forced to carry out her mourning for the rest of her life. But instead of pitying herself, she was courageous and dared to change her destiny. She fought to ensure herself an offspring at the cost of endangering her life as if to say that cunning is the weapon of those who lack power. In doing so, she took the risk of trapping her stepfather by acting like a prostitute to make a name and identity for herself. It’s her way of circumventing the customs that would condemn her to widowhood all her life. Some would say that this is not the right way to act but, curiously, the one who acted so is named in the genealogy of Jesus. So who is to judge her? God or humans? Taking the risk of prostitution is sometimes a positive choice, with all due respect to society. The decision of Tamar to get inseminated so that life continues was a choice: the choice of life at the risk of breaking the law.

The story of Rahab (Joshua 2 and 6) describes an ethics of capacity. Leading her life alone, this woman is designated as a prostitute who lived in her own house. Beyond prostitution and lying, which can be taken as negative traits in her, she presents herself as a woman with a deep knowledge of the political life of her country and the surrounding countries. She made herself famous by welcoming and protecting the two Jewish spies sent to Jericho as scouts. Not only does she welcome and protect them, but she also gives them rescuing strategies. The judgment and the way she is considered through her status do not affect her ability to think and act. Her political capacity emerges through her ability to deceive the king’s men who came to her home looking for the spies and to put them on the wrong track in a reassuring way. Under a flattering and honest appearance, she attracts the favourable gaze of the men of the king before deterring them, pretending not to know where her guests came from or where they went. But she goes further, trying to ward off the danger and stating that the two men went out during the closing of the city gates. Rahab plays the game of reversal of roles and words with these emissaries of the king. When they ask her to bring out the two men, she answers them that they have left while hiding them under her roof. Finally, she urges the king’s men to pursue them. It is only afterwards that she returns to the Jewish men to tell them how to rescue themselves and to conclude a pact with them for the salvation of herself and of her family. Rahab proved herself bold, enterprising, persuasive and resolved. It is in this that she represents a certain essential feminine flair and a female capacity.[12]

Ruth the Moabite develops an ethics of action and hope through her story. A converted Moabite woman whose story is told in the biblical book that bears her name, Ruth was the widow of an Israelite, Malchon, whose family emigrated in order to flee a famine. When Naomi, her stepmother, wants to return to the land of Canaan after the tragedy in which she loses her husband and two sons, Ruth refuses to part with her. The two women arrive in Bethlehem, where they live in poverty. Not wanting to rest, Ruth decides to give meaning to her life by gleaning the ears of corn in the field of Boaz, who was related to her father-in-law. Her determination lies in her way of overcoming discriminatory stereotypes and breaking down the barriers erected by customs through remaining persistent, wise, and responsible. Ruth is a young, poor, foreign, and childless widow, despite this status she shows herself bold and combative. This is approved of by God to whom she is not foreign. She gives meaning to her life by meeting Boaz, who marries her with the support of her mother-in-law. Ruth and Boaz engender a son, Obed, the grandfather of David. This story, a bit chaotic at first, leads to a path of life that involves the foreigner in the genealogy of Jesus. For African women today, Ruth is the model of a fighting woman who has looked to the future with confidence and who has understood that despair does not solve anything, it only aggravates the situation. But hope, on the contrary, gives life when it is a dynamic of action.[13]

It is an ethics of conversion to the logic of God that emerges from the figure of Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11-12). Bathsheba was the victim of abuse through the king’s will to power. This led not only to an act of adultery, but also to the murder of her husband, Uriah. The moral problem in the text is linked to the exertion of patriarchal power that is also denounced by the prophet Nathan. He appeared before David to blame him for his faults. But despite David’s repentance, Nathan foretold many future misfortunes. David, warned of the imminent death of the baby, the fruit of adultery, prayed to God during long days of fasting. Nevertheless, the son died. Later, David and Bathsheba were forgiven by God. They had another son, Solomon, who became king after the death of his father. Strangely in this story, no divine sanction aimed at Bathsheba is mentioned. Is this a way of denouncing her victimization? In any case, the important point is that the entrance of this woman in David’s life is a source of his conversion and transformation. If the prophet Nathan is the one who worked on this change in King David, Bathsheba is the socio-ethical catalyst. This aspect of Bathsheba’s life is crucial in the work of salvation and constitutes a source of inspiration.

With Mary, we discover an ethic of responsibility and openness to a new horizon. Mary is presented as the mother of Jesus in the Scriptures. God communicated with her through an angel, who announces to her that she has received the grace of being chosen among all women to be the mother of God through a virginal conception. This announcement originally tormented her, since she was preparing to enter into marriage with her fiancé, Joseph. Faced with this announcement, she raises objections and asks questions to know how this will happen. Without resorting to her fiancé and without relying on what will happen to her because of her social status, Mary accepts the mission and surrenders to the will of God. Mary does not bind her call to the approval of Joseph, her fiancé, as is often recommended in society, or to her social situation. She only let God work in her life as a woman regardless of her status and forgetting what will be said about her. This earned her the title of mother of Jesus. Mary is the model of a woman who does not pay attention to demotivating words and stereotypes that would prevent her from fulfilling her mission. She opens a new horizon to her life with the strength that God gives her. African women are called to put themselves in the school of Mary and accept their mission that is one of social transformation, in order to achieve a destiny of life and hope.[14]

The stories of these women are cracks, a kind of revolution in an ambient ideology. Their attitudes and behaviour stand as a discourse that opposes nationalist bans, confirming that in precarious situations, we must transgress and break taboos in order to go forward. This rereading of the female genealogy of Jesus Christ lies essentially in the context of the promotion of women. In this way, the Bible becomes a source of inspiration where the stories of female figures represent a landmark around which African women can interpret and understand God’s message in their context and their daily realities. In doing so, they will draw from the Bible the energies needed for a transformation of society and for shared happiness.

An ethic of a liberating new beginning

Marcellin Sètondji Dossou says the same thing when he proposes an ethics of a liberating new beginning. In the episode of the adulterous woman, he perceives an essentially subversive feminist mind in Jesus. This subversion is expressed in Jesus‘ reaction that, unlike those who had brought the woman, refuses to condemn her:

Go, and sin no more! (John 8, 11)

The liberating logic of Jesus offers forgiveness, grace, and love: the possibility of renewed life in him. In this way, Jesus criticizes the tendency of men to appoint women as cause and source of their woes.[15] According to the law, it is not only the woman who is liable to sin, but both the man and the woman. It suffices to read the Law of Moses to understand that adultery is not limited to sex and that, even then, both actors must be sanctioned by executing both the man and the woman. The praxis however, since it is guaranteed by men, ended up gradually moving away from the law itself, becoming the instrument of the reason of the state, the reason of „gender“. Gradually, justice for all was forgotten and only justice against women was maintained.[16] The feminist spirit of Jesus is revealed when he saves the woman from a death without justice and offers her a new life in God. This form of feminism consists in destroying the civilization of depredation in society. In this civilization, there is a vice that surrounds women and leads them to death. The man plays a role of domination and the woman a role of submission. It is a vice that encircles the woman and puts her in the „middle“, as is the case of the adulterous woman. The situation of this woman corresponds to that of the female gender in general and particularly of African women who are still in the midst of violence and encircled by the weight of death. In this situation their right to speak is denied to them and they are blamed for all evils. In this way, women find themselves besieged, lifeless, and without dignity.

Faced with this situation and starting from the analysis of the story of this woman with Jesus, Marcellin Sètondji Dossou offers a theology of de-encirclement.[17] Both men and women must agree to break the encirclement that stifles women in society. They must all agree to consider the relationships between men and women as a circle whose centre is the Lord Jesus: all other men and women would be nothing more than points of the circumference equidistant from the centre. The de-encirclement is primarily a rejection of all claims to domination, of the silencing of women, of fanciful condemnation, of certain aspects of our own traditions, of crimes in the name of tradition. It is about a feminism of full renewal of life that makes us conscious of our need of God’s mercy and His refusal to condemn us. Jesus is the only one who gives us grace.


A feminist hermeneutics of liberation is a tool favourable to the development of women. Its basis is a rereading of the Bible. The different approaches of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Marie-France Bayedila Bawunina and Marcellin Sètondji Dossou develop a reading of the Bible that breaks down the prejudices about women, thus liberating them. These approaches use the essentially liberating scope of the gospel. African women must admit to go out and to leave this logic of sin behind, where law, customs and traditions reign as ruthless killers. They must enter the liberating logic of Jesus that gives them a voice!


Response by Tania Oldenhage

This article by Fidèle made me marvel at the strength of feminist works on the Bible. Today we can already look back at decades of feminist writings in the field of biblical criticism. As Fidèle vividly shows, feminist works on the Bible are able to transcend time and space. When Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s “The Woman’s Bible” was published in the late 19th century, there may have not been an audience yet to appreciate this great accomplishment, as Fidèle suggests. But today some of these early feminist commentaries can inspire us with their unconventional wit and boldness. They can encourage us to break open established academic writing styles and to read biblical texts against the grain with humour and confidence. Fidèle’s article also traces the way in which feminist works on the Bible published in the Occident can support African women who are active in the churches today. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s biblical hermeneutics was published in the 1980s in the United States and was then received mostly by white feminist scholars in Europe and North America. Today, three decades later, Schüssler Fiorenza’s hermeneutical approach is applied by African feminist theologians to contexts where women urgently need support to find their role in church and society. I wonder if perhaps Schüssler Fiorenza’s work is only now able to fully unfold its transformative power. Fidèle goes on to describe the works of Marie-France Bayedila Bawunina and Marcellin Sètondji Dossou and their significance for African women. Thereby she also recovers the significance of a text – the genealogy in Matthew 1 – that in my tradition has often been cast aside as irrelevant. Rereading the stories of the five women in the beginning of Matthew through the eyes of African women speaks also to my own European context by asking Swiss women theologians to go forward with their cause just as Tamar, Rahab or Ruth move forward despite many obstacles.


[1] Elizabeth Cady Stanton et al., The Woman’s Bible, available on, (visited on 13 October 2013).

[2] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her. A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. New York : The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1983, p. 8.

[3] See note 2.

[4] Ibid.,p. xiv..

[5] Ibid. p. 61.

[6] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Bread not Stone, Boston, Beacon, 1985.

[7] While androcentrism characterizes an attitude of mind, patriarchy is a socio-cultural system in which some men exert power over other men, women, children, slaves, colonized peoples. Cf. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (note 2) p.69 (french version)

[8] Marcellin Sètondji Dossou et Marie-France Bayedila Bawunina, Libérer la femme africaine pour une voie chrétienne du féminisme en Afrique, Collection : Cahiers de la Nouvelle Conscience Africaine, N°3, Yaoundé, Sherpa, 2003.

[9] Ibid., p. 5.

[10] The text doesn’t mention the name but only says „Uriah’s wife“.

[11] Op. Cit., p. 6.

[12] Marie-France Bayedila Bawunina, Op. Cit., p. 21. [transl. E.Z.]

[13] Ibid., p. 25.

[14] Marcellin Sètondji Dossou et Marie-France Bayedila Bawunina, Op. Cit., p. 31.

[15] Marcellin Sètondji Dossou et Marie-France Bayedila Bawunina, Op. Cit., p. 64.

[16] Ibid., p. 63.

[17] Marcellin Sètondji Dossou, et Marie-France Bayedila Bawunina, Op. Cit., p. 66.

(Translation from French: Evelyne Zinsstag)

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