Gendered Grace in the Book of Isaiah
Last semester I reached the conclusion that the more cosmetic chemicals I put on my face in the morning, the smoother my social interactions go that day. Brownie points for leg-lengthening heels, never mind the pain. When the cold doesn’t keep us in the Columbia pea coat, tighter clothes can’t hurt, either.
With this conclusion came a sobering realization. Louder than the occasional Dove True Beauty or Aerie Real Campaign (1) is the army of images surrounding me that claim: beauty is power. And this message actually corroborates my daily experience.
All of us have felt beautiful at some point. There is nothing so empowering. It feels delightfully dangerous to be aware of others trying to please you. As women, our need for this power is as biological as it is emotional, for from the beginning we have always had to act in view of an empowered other (2). This is why American Apparel never clothes both halves of their female models simultaneously, why Vogue perfume ads make token female nudes into accessories.
They count on our penchant for self-empowerment—for who does not want that “all shall love me, and despair” (4)?—but following their advice to put ourselves on display actually puts us into the power of others. Like a European nude caged by her picture frame, we become appraised by our beholders. And the attention promiscuity brings cannot counterfeit true love. As Aristotle perceived (5), what we really want is not attention (or “honor”, as he terms it) but that which honor signifies: true and abiding value.
My final realization was that I had followed their advice. I had bought the product, I had clawed for beauty because it hinted at goodness, and in the process had drained myself of real wholesomeness.
God rescued me. Brooding in the uncharitable chapels of my mind, I was providentially distracted by the Old Testament Book of Isaiah. In the midst of my disillusionment, here lay my solution. Here, in God’s people, Israel, was another woman following a promiscuous quest for power who had looked up too late, degraded and devalued by the very thing she set store by.
An unlikely source of comfort! Isaiah, with its sixty-three chapters of divine judgment interspersed with utopic redemption, is one of those Old Testament books prompting claims like Columbia WikiCU’s, that “the old testament God is schizophrenic” (6). But the modern Christian reader of Isaiah encounters bigger problems than Yahweh’s mood-swings making her LitHum class snicker. Provocative at least and offensive at worst is Isaiah’s choice to cast Israel, God’s chosen people, as a promiscuous woman. Isaiah’s opening characterization of Zion sounds like “slut-shaming”: “How the faithful city has become a whore” (1:21). Israel’s transgressions are continually described as female: her daughters “[glance] wantonly with their eyes” (3:16); her idolatry is equated to promiscuity, a traditionally female vice. I found myself wincing at punishments seemingly engineered for Israel’s sexual humiliation: in return for her pride, the Lord “[strikes] with a scab the heads of the daughters of Zion, and [lays] bare their secret parts” (3:17).
The narrative thrives on this politically incorrect gendered metaphor, and the modern Christian reader’s instinct is to execute some serious damage control: “Surely God should be more sensitive! Isn’t gender inequality unequivocally rotten, a curse from the Fall?”
In fact, that is precisely Isaiah’s point. The reason Isaiah became an overpowering source of comfort for me was because of its gendered passages: more importantly, because of its gendered promises. They proved to me not only that God takes special note of the world’s abuses of women, but also that He has the power and intention to gender-specifically remedy them. He does not offer us an off-the-rack, androgynous salvation but instead one poised to address women’s age-old complaints of being treated as reproductive machines, military plunder, and sexual objects.
Of course, Isaiah can also comfort male believers, but only if they are ready to be spiritually emasculated, recognizing that they are as powerless and condemnable before God as a sexually compromised woman was before her stone-casting community. They may take heart, however, for this admission grants them access to Isaiah’s sumptuous redemption—which is, by the way, also couched in explicitly feminine terms. After all, if women got the short stick at the Fall, then they should receive the juiciest firstfruits of redemption.
My first installment of hope came from realizing that far from celebrating ancient women’s downtrodden condition, Isaiah was using it as a mirror image of both male and female believers’ spiritual effeminacy—in the most unfairly stereotypical sense of the word. Just as ancient women’s welfare was determined by male authorities who fought over their heads, so all humans’ spiritual welfare is determined not by our own virtuous exertions but by the masters we choose.
Throughout the book of Isaiah runs the privileged male dialogue of war. While the fat [tom]cats of the 6th century B.C. push around Risk pieces on a map of the Levant, Israel—our understudy—appears as a prisoner of war. A non-contender, she stands watching as her “men fall by the sword”: her male guardians dead, she sits on the ground (3:26).
Isaiah’s portrayal of women as war-torn cargo is sickening: we read of “seven women….[taking] hold of one man in that day, saying, “We will eat our own bread and wear our own clothes, only let us be called by your name” (4:1). And I could only deal with this when I realized that it was meant to be sickening. Rather than ridiculing, Isaiah is actually validating female suffering by deeming it to heinous enough to typify all of humanity’s lack of spiritual agency. Male and female, we all must depend on—or, really,worship—something. To become what Tim Keller deems “honest intellectuals” (7), we must recognize that like virtually all women in ancient societies, humanity is not free. Mastered by default, our only choice is which master we will serve.
The second gender-neutral use for Isaiah’s metaphor is to illustrate that all believers, like Israel, repeatedly engage in the spiritual hook-up culture of idolatry. Isaiah harnesses the unique stigma of female promiscuity in order to convict both male and female believers that, as Jesus said, since no one is without sin, no one should be casting any stones (8). Indeed, probably the only good use for the overblown stereotype of female vice is to turn it on its head, attributing its repugnancy to all believers. Male and female alike, we are ever unwilling to give up our idols, but infinitely ready to give up on God. This explicit account is meant for all of us:
“Deserting Me, you have uncovered your bed, you have gone up to it, you have made it wide; and you have made a covenant for yourself with them, you have loved their bed, you have looked on nakedness” (Isaiah 57:8).
By targeting the very thing Israel, personified as an ancient woman, would (wrongly (9)) be most valued for—her sexual integrity—Isaiah meant to show that we have made ourselves just as worthless through intercourse with idols. Only by such scandalous equation can our idolatry show its ugliest true colors. Isaiah’s point is that God’s disgust for idolatry—no arbitrary prudishness, but a righteous hatred of the sins of His people—outzeals even the harshest stigma placed by ancient societies on female promiscuity.
Isaiah’s feminine metaphor, then, gives the ancient agony of women a gender-transcendent meaning and purpose: to illustrate humanity’s similarly desperate spiritual condition. But even once the metaphor is explained, the reality behind it still remains: male and female may be spiritually equal, but they are equally depraved. (10)
What is the way out? Without God, it is impossible to manage the realization that we are so “effeminate,” so at the mercy of idols whom we will never satiate with our attention, effort, or time. Terrifying, to be like a bartered prisoner ignorant of her next master except he be a cruel one, to realize that until death we will be subject to a ceaseless slurry of abusive relationships in which love will never be secure.
Without God, people do realize this, and despair (11). They choose their poison: career milestones, cultural achievement; beautiful families and sustainable lifestyles; non-profit work, altruism, contributing to the global storehouse of knowledge. These are the highest intentions that Columbia’s unredeemed graduates can come up with, and while they may keep them from being more overtly “eaten alive” (12) by money, sex, and power, what image they bear is already darkening.
Grieving for these lost, we do not grieve “as [those] do who have no hope”(13). Isaiah’s solution is sufficient to anchor all believers’ hopes, yet tailored to offer female believers relief for their peculiar mode of abuse by the world. God’s achingly beautiful course of action throughout the rest of Isaiah is to draw from the dregs of society its most disenfranchised members. And as He sets right what has been done to women since our species began, the corollary is that He will set right what sin has done to human beings ever since the Fall.
The real beauty of Isaiah’s strategy is how he declaws the female stereotypes of weakness and promiscuity and proceeds to deflect their stigma upon the very males that perpetuated them. The “mighty man,” “soldier,” “judge,” “prophet,” “diviner,” “elder,” “the captain of fifty” and the “man of rank” (3:2-3)—representing male leaders of all times and places who have crowed over the eye splinters of their female subjects—are forcibly fed their own medicine, and the shame they have heaped on female promiscuity serves to deepen the very slur they receive when Isaiah pronounces them all “a people laden with iniquity” (1:4). And while his nastiest female epithets are for both male and female believers, Isaiah’s most appealing passages contain feminized promises that the female believer can actually appreciate more than the male.
Because through all of homo sapiens’ evolutionary history, the sexes have been in conflict. Pursuing her own survival strategy by investing in her offspring, female homo found herself chronically abandoned by the male “philanderer,” whose own strategy was to distribute his genes, Genghis Khan-style, among as many partners as he could manage (14). Throughout history men, too, have had their share of an unflattering archetype: that of the father who abandons his children.
Is it coincidence, then, that God has “called” Israel “like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit, / like a wife of youth when she is cast off” (54:6)? That where the male philanderer of evolutionary fame has abandoned her and her children to die, God will make her children
“say in [her] ears: ‘The place is too narrow for me; make room for me to dwell in.’ Then [she] will say in [her] heart: ‘Who has borne me these? I was bereaved and barren, exiled and put away, but who has brought up these? Behold, I was left alone; From where have these come?’” (49:20-21)
God’s strongest characteristic in Isaiah is nothing if not Faithful. He promises that her children will “gather together, [to] come to you,” that “your sons shall come from afar, / and your daughters shall be carried on the hip” (60:4). He pledges that “the reproach of your widowhood” (think of how vulnerable a woman would be at the death of her male protector in ancient times) “you shall remember no more” (54:4).
The fate of war-torn women is so endemically troubling that even God seems to dwell on it to afford it the more dignity: “who will console you?—devastation and destruction, famine and sword; who will comfort you?” (51:19) But even their fate will recoil against their “tormentors.” Where they have been ever harrowed by the “killing machine” which “has a gender, and it is male” (15)—raped and beaten and bought and sold as a cipher on the balance sheets of man’s business of war—they are now commanded to “loose the bonds from your neck, O captive daughter of Zion” (52:1)!
Finally, and best of all, God does not forget to manage women’s inherent (and socially enforced) burden for beauty. For the ludicrous truth is that He is actually going to make—“has made” (60:9)—us beautiful. He is not content to merely save us (16). He is no Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin (17) to make us grovel at his feet for rescue, dour-faced and penitent for the rest of our earthly lives. No; God is rather a Mr. Rochester, from Jane Eyre, who insists on Jane’s wedding finery, itching to show her off as a great beauty. He vows to bring us to a place where He can acclaim us publicly: “The nations shall see your righteousness, and all the kings your glory” (62:2) – Like Raskolnikov with Sonya (18), he is set on reversing our disgrace, on restoring our status: “You shall no more be called Forsaken, and your name shall no more be called Desolate…But you shall be called ‘My delight is in her,’ and your land, ‘Married’” (62 something).
And our beauty?
“O afflicted one, storm-tossed and not comforted, behold, I will set your stones in antimony, and lay your foundations with sapphires. I will make your pinnacles of ruby, your gates of crystal.” (54:11-12)
God actually grants us that elusive power American Apparel and all human nature-savvy merchandisers attribute to their products: the unquestionable, eternal ability to retain somebody’s investment. This kind of heady belovedness—of being “entirely safe, and entirely known” (19)—leads us to dance (20); to display our real beauty in healthy and not degrading ways; to employ the gifts He has given us, and to never, ever question our objective worth, independent of our mood or emotions, for we know that He desires us in spite of, not because of, our conduct towards Him. (21)
- Both campaigns purport to showcase real women and celebrate their imperfections, with at least the latter pledging not to retouch their photos in any way. As one snide internet commenter remarked, “From now on, we will only use women who are naturally smoking hot.”
- For a paleoanthropological perspective, see the last section of this essay where I discuss differing male/female survival strategies. (Power, Camilla. 2004. Women in prehistoric art. In New Perspectives on Prehistoric Art, edited by Günter Berghaus, pp. 75-104. Praeger, London.)
- I owe the language of “selling this power for the price of their product”, plus the European nude metaphor later on, to John Berger’s 1972 book Ways of Seeing (chapters 3 and 7).
- From Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring: Galadriel at her mirror, envisioning herself armed with the One Ring: “Beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! …All shall love me and despair!”
- I apologize for bringing CC into this. (Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII, “On Friendship”)
- Tim Keller, Encounters with Jesus, 28-30.
- John 8:7, Jesus defending an adulteress condemned to death.
- To be deemed sexually worthless is the heaviest blow a woman can receive—especially, I argue, in an ancient, near-Eastern culture which prized public modesty to the point of “honor killings.” It should not be, of course: such thinking is the twisted product of a chain of abuse where she is first valued ONLY for her sexual capacity (for progeny or for pleasure) and consequently compromised once this, her only “marketable skill”, is called into question.
- JOHN CALVIN! (Institutes of the Christian Religion, p. 489.)
- David Foster Wallace realized this, and despaired.
- David Foster Wallace, “This is Water”
- 1 Thessalonians 4:13.
- See above Camilla Powers article (endnote 3.). TL; DR: Male hominins were scumbags.
- Susan Sontag’s summing up of Virginia Woolf’s correspondence with a London lawyer (from her essay “Looking at War”)
- Charlie Drew, A Journey Worth Taking
- That slimeball fiancée of Dunya’s in Crime and Punishment. RAZUMIKHIN FTW
- I am thinking of when Rodya introduces Sonya to his mother and sister, a potentially scandalous action since Sonya is a prostitute and thus could seriously damage the reputation of any associated with her.
- Charlie Drew
- See Jer. 31:4.
- “God by his gifts anticipates all our merit, that he may thereby manifest his own merit, and give what is absolutely free, because he sees nothing in us that can be a ground of salvation.” –John Calvin