Bible Study II:
Fullness of Life for All: Well-being of Mothers,
|Now as the king if Israel was walking on the city wall, a woman cried out to him, "Help, my lord king!" He said, "No! Let the LORD help you. How can I help you? From the threshing floor or from the wine press?" But then the king asked her, "What is your complaint?" She answered, "This woman said to me, 'Give up your son; we will eat him today, and we will my son tomorrow.' So we cooked my son and ate him. The next day I said to her, 'Give up your son and we will eat him.' But she has hidden her son." When the king heard the words of the woman he tore his clothes - now since he was walking on the city wall, the people could see that he had sackcloth on his body underneath - and he said, "So may God do to me, and more, if the head of Elisha son of Shaphat stays on his shoulders today."|
In the above passage, during the great famine in Samaria, one day a woman stops the king as he passes along the city wall. The woman is seeking justice through the king with regard to an abhorring case in which the woman accuses another woman of breaking her agreement. The agreement is to eat the other woman's son after this other woman's having eaten together with the first woman and her son the day before. The king was completely astonished and immediately tore his cloths in contrition for such things to happen in his city. In spite of the magnitude of the first woman's loss, the story invites no sympathy but horror. How could a mother eat her own child in order to survive! We could not imagine how grave would a famine be to invoke such human calamities! Expectations of self-sacrificing motherhood, which so win us to the real mother in Solomon's case, made the cannibal mother entirely unthinkable. Further offensive is the woman's blindness to her heinous crime and her presumption in suing for the "justice" of another child's death!
Though evidence exists for the reality of cannibalism in starving cities, it is still hard to believe that the narrator here asks us to imagine a real situation. Rather, as many commentators argue, the woman's incongruous appeal for justice embodies a grotesque humor whose purpose is to point to deeper issues of social disruption, distrust, and greed. A mother whose "predictable" maternal instinct has failed symbolizes a world in chaos as surely as Solomon's reliance on it marked his capacity to bring order. The cannibal mothers are only one sign, however, of the deep disarray in an upside-down world.
As a relatively new mom, my heart pierced whenever I read the news about maltreatment of young babies. I could not stop reflecting on what kind of society we have when young babies could die of severe physical abuse. More often in Hong Kong are cases where desperate mothers killed their children before they themselves committed suicide. One recent alarming case was that a mother threw her two children of four and seven years old down sixteenth floors before she jumped off the pane herself. Indeed, the number of child abuse in Hong Kong is on the rise. Fatal cases involved unwed mothers throwing their newborns out of apartment windows or young babies of under two beaten to death. The cries of frightening innocent young children surely soared far and high. Again, what kind of situation must a mother face before she could come to such an "a-maternal" act to resolve her problems? What kind of support have our societies provided for mothers who most often get the blunt of economic depression and other societal disruptions? Are we managing our society in a way that would allow mothers and children, and for that matter, everyone in our society to enjoy the fullest of life possible?
In this following study, I will like to focus on three stories of the "mothers" in the Books of Kings, and more specifically mothers directly interacted with the prophets. There are altogether five such stories in 1 and 2 Kings. Besides the one of cannibal mothers, another one involves Ahijah and the wife of Jeroboam (1 Kings 14: 1-18), the rest involve either Elijah or Elisha and a mother. Like the story of the cannibal mothers, I find the stories of women in the books serve very special purpose. In a way, they are not only stories about women but women in the turbulent years witnessing the rise and fall of the kingdoms. As the title of this study suggests, stories of mothers have never been about women themselves. Many times, stories whereby women struggle to seek the state of beings of their children and themselves are also stories about the well-being of the society (the nation) and how well their leaders (the kings) are managing their people. I shall draw reflection on the stories together with a reflection on the women of our societies in Asia.
Despite its disruptive literary context, the episode of the cannibal mothers too is one episode within a larger pattern of narratives in the books of Kings. To be precise, all these stories aim to highlight, via the mother-son's well-beings, the different relationship between the monarchs and the prophets, Yahweh's men of God, and thereby serve as a means of assessment in the kings' faithfulness to Yahweh. Depending on the success or failure of the mothers' plead for their sons' lives, Yahweh announced his judgement on his kings and their kingdoms. Among the few cases, the only case of failure is the plead of Jeroboam's wife. They lose their son because of the king's enormous sin. An extreme is the case of the cannibal mothers, where the king, though expresses faithfulness in Yahweh, is depicted as entirely helpless in his circumstances.
For our purpose here, I shall focus on the other three stories as the center of our reflection. All women plead successfully for the well beings of their sons. The stories are found in 1 Kings 17: 8-24, 2 Kings 4: 1-7 and 2 Kings 4: 8-37. The first story involves a Sidonian widow who is about to die of starvation together with her son. The second story tells of a widow who is about to give away her two children to slavery because of debts inherited from her late husband. The third story involves a wealthy Shunammitess who extends warm reception to the prophet during his journeys to Shunem. While the female characters in the stories should not be overlooked, they can also be understood as generic representation of people such as peasants and the faithful among the ruling elite. They represent at the same time those who were struggling for survival amid the political strife and agricultural hardships of mid-ninth-century Israel. In this sense, the miracles function as a genre of empowerment, shared among people of similar fate to encourage their own initiative in the face of despair.
Prophets and the Widows
(1 Kings 17: 8-24; 2 Kings 4:1-7)
What kind of situation the two widows faced? And what do the prophets do to redeem their situation? The two stories share something in common. The first one involves Elijah and the Sidonian widow; the second involves Elisha and a prophet's widow. They are similar especially in terms of the grave poverty both women faced. The Sidonian widow is about to eat her last meal with her son and prepared to die with him. Comparing with her, the problem with the prophet's widow is not starvation but debt, and the threat to her offspring is therefore not death but slavery. Selling a child was one of the few antidotes to debt available to a peasant. The concerns addressed here, therefore, are real-life concerns of struggling peasants whose lot was made all the worse by unprincipled creditors and landholders.
What interests me most in these two stories is the prophets' response to the women's situation of poverty. In 1 Kings, Elijah speaks directly as God's messenger, proclaiming that the widow's oil and meal shall not fail until the day of rain. Despite the fact that the scenario where the second widow faced is quite different, the second miracle seems to count on the same saving motif of Yahweh:
For thus Yahweh speaks, the God of Israel:
"Jar of meal shall not be spent, jug of oil shall bot be emptied,
before the day when Yahweh sends rain on the face of the earth."
(1 Kings 17: 14)
Both responding miracles do not refer to the subsistence item of grain but involves rather the proliferation of oil which can be sold. In the first miracle by Elijah, the jar of meal that is not spent goes hand in hand the jug of oil that is always full. The reason between the two is clearly spelled out in the second miracle by Elisha. For the oil is a precious commodity of the community sold for good money. When oil in the jug does not run out, the livelihood of the widows and their children are secured. That means, the prophets have not only given the two women food to survive or money to return to the creditors, they have also given them an important means of support at least for a good period of time (until rain comes in the Sidonian case).
Looking at it from the perspective of the whole peasant community, this "redeeming principle" that Yahweh announces, through Elijah, is very important to people in poverty. What Yahweh grants is not only food to feed the mouth but a means to self-subsistence for the poor. That is what happens with regular peasants' lives. In a good year without institutional corruption, they live on their land and feed on their own efforts. However, in days of famine and the expounding power of the landlords, not only the peasants' lives are threatened but also their means of self-subsistence are lost. And that usually marks the beginning of their worse days to come.
In the context of woman, the principle of economic self-subsistence is all the more important. That woman must be able to support herself economically has been a concern raised since the emergence of women's consciousness. This does not always happen with women in the urban cities where most nuclear families depend on women as the sole caretakers of household matters. Many times a woman finds herself completely vulnerable and helpless when she realizes that she has sacrificed everything for her husband (and the family),who for whatever reason may be, is no longer there to support her. Not only her emotional dependence on him is completely shattered, her immediate livelihood is also threatened. With the increase of husbands acquiring "second wives" across the mainland border, an informal source of Hong Kong records a recent increase of female psychiatric patients. These are women who went into serious depression after having been deserted by their husbands. Women who are able to remain sane in such situations are those who could at least survive economically.
When we come to the third story of the Shunammite woman, I find this precious principle of self-subsistence of a woman is fully extended.
Elisha and the Shunammite Woman
(2 Kings 4: 8-37; 8: 1-6)
Commentators often find the portrayal of the unnamed woman from Shunem one of the most remarkable in the Bible. Being independent and maternal, powerful and pious, she surpasses almost all other female characters in the Bible. She is observant in both practical and spiritual ways: she notices not only Elisha's regular passing through Shunem but also the aura that marks him as a "man of God." Like Abigail in the Book of Samuel (1 Samuel 25), she has perceived, in spite of her husband's insensitivity, that alliance with the man of God is in her household's interest, as we shall see in Chapter 8, and takes an initiative that might have been her husband's. Not only that she is doing economically well enough to build and furnish an upper room for Elisha's use, but also she has the mind and ability to carry out her words.
In the face of the woman's self-reliance, Elisha feels like he has nothing to offer to her. Only with the tips of his servant, he initiates an act typical of wonder-workers in folktales: promising the barren woman a child. This motif is a common one in the Bible, but it takes some unexpected turns in this instance. Most childless women in the Bible are defined by that status from the outset, and the stories about them revolve around their desire for a child and the social lack that they experience without one. The Shunammite woman, on the other hand, is presented as having a self-sufficiency and an authority independent of motherhood. Even after receiving Elisha's promise of pregnancy, the woman responds not with joy but with wary caution. She pleads instead that she will not be deceived.
This is extremely interesting at this point as the story implicates a woman who is quite satisfied with what she has - including what she does not have, namely a child. She simply says 'no' when Elisha sends Gehazi, his servant, to grant her a favor. Now, the idea of childlessness as a want comes from Gehazi. Nowhere else in the story is this want indicated. Is it simply a want imposed by Gehazi then Elisha through their male eyes? Does the woman say "no, my lord, do not deceive your servant" means a lack unexpressed or a polite but true "no"? As a man of God, Elisha announces the miracle without asking for the woman's consent. As a result, the woman's independency is intruded. She becomes subjected to Elisha's power of having granted her a son and also his power to revive him a few years later.
Despite her changed position from a hostess to a debtor of the prophet, the woman continues to reveal the most outstanding character. When she determines to confront the prophet for the sudden death of her son, she ignores her husband's doubt and passes over Gehazi's inquiry and goes straight to Elisha. There she grasps his feet and shows her distress. Still far from obsequious, she confronts him with her earlier plea not to deceive her with false promises. When Elisha sent Gehazi for the cure, the woman expresses her doubt. She then swears the same oath sworn by Elijah to cause a drought and by the Sidonian woman to announce her and her son's death, and even intensifies it, "As Yahweh lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave without you" (4: 30). She rightly demands for the prophet's direct attention to the matter as the story later shows. A few chapters later, the woman appears again and is instructed by Elisha to escape from a seven-year famine. Once again the reader is impressed with her competence and independent authority. It is she, rather than her husband, is counseled. She makes the decision and chooses Philistines as the destination. On her return, she goes right to the king to petition for the return of her house and her land. We do not hear much from her husband except the brief instance in which he sends his sick child to the mother.
The self-sufficiency and autonomy of the woman seems to be extraordinary. The question is why is such a woman character possible? Carol Meyers argues that although full gender equality is never found in agricultural societies, one can conjecture that during the period of the tribal confederacy women in Israel must be accorded a relatively high status. The intense labor of the pioneer period, coupled with the need for a high level of fertility, demanded the participation of all persons, including women. A woman was then never "just a mother," though she was (biologically willing) unavoidably that. As manager of an extended family household, she was largely responsible for its economic viability. As the wife of an influential citizen and the mother of wisely trained children, she had at least an indirect voice in village affairs. However, when the monarchy gradually consolidated its power and centralized political and economic decision making, it eventually eroded the base of female authority in the village kinship structures, robbing that culture of its autonomy and self-sufficiency. This might not affected the daily lives of these village women but their livelihood in the outset in many respects. This disempowerment of Israel's peasantry likely provided the impetus for stories about the prophets' miracles.
Looking at the two widows, both lost their economic support after their husbands died. Besides the plight of poor peasantry, the widows' difficulties remind us again of how fragile a woman's livelihood could be when her source of support is limited to her husband. As in the case of the Sidonian widow, the husband had not been doing well already even when he was alive. We do not know how well a prophet was paid at the time, but we do know that he had left nothing but debts for his wife and children to carry. The autonomy of the Shunammite woman is of course quite different from the self-subsistence that the two widows retained through the acts of the prophets. As one of the landed gentry, the Shunammitess does not suffer the privation of the peasants like the two widows do. However, she shares a degree of insecurity in livelihood as her property and possessions are very much subjected to the demands of the king and his army. If she has not hosted Elisha earlier, she might either have already died of starvation during the seven-year famine or have lost all her property and possessions upon her return. Among the three women, if the means of self-subsistence provides the two widows with at least a certain degree of economical and social stability, the autonomy of the Shunnamite woman, built on the basis of economic subsistence, gets her through unforeseen natural calamities and institutional difficulties. Without either of these above conditions, women would hardly survive with sane and dignity.
The miracle stories also communicate the values of the just society promoted by the prophets of Yahweh. God's promise of the fullness of life is here beautifully manifested in image of the never-go-empty jug of oil. In the first story of the Sidonian widow, the jug is constantly refilled. In the story of the prophet's widow, oil overflows one jug and fills another. It keeps filling up whatever number of jugs the family could find. Can there be any other better illustration of what God means by fullness of life to all?
"Fullness" of the jugs certainly signifies a fullness that is not only taken in a spiritual sense, but one that has a basis in the physical and material reality. And in the material sense, fullness implies not only a hungry mouth be fed but the establishing of a system for the continuous sustaining and nurturing of life. This is why the principle of self-subsistence is important. It brings a degree of stability and thereby a sense of social integrity (in the case of not having to sell their children) and human dignity (in the case of being able to exercise an extent of self-autonomy). Moreover, fullness means the well-beings of not only an individual but that of the whole community. For anyone who lives in an insecure community could not enjoy the fullness of life. A good example is even a well-off woman such as the Shunamitess could not be completely free from the harm done by the concentration of monarchal power. It is therefore important for us to pay attention to the least of our neighbors who are often wrestling with the harshest realities of our societies. When the widows and their children are about to face starvation or slavery, their difficulties are only the first symptoms of the problem of the whole community.
Furthermore in the stories of 1 and 2 Kings, the kings are held responsible for their poor reign and governing which only lead to intensification of natural calamities. From the prophets' point of view, the kings' responsibility is primarily theological. That is, the privation of their people and the difficulties they face are results of the kings' sins against God. The kings' unfaithfulness is directly linked to the emergence of all natural and human calamities. The more centralized is this ungodly power of the monarchy, the worse is their people's predicaments. Ironically, where people are left to themselves, free from the domination of centralized governments, they are better resourced to cope with natural calamities such as famine. When the prophets grant the people their means of self-subsistence in 1 and 2 Kings, God returns through the prophets the power of regeneration from the monarch to the people themselves. Similarly, when the means of self-subsistence is returned to the hands of women, despite still harsh environments, they find a better secure life for themselves.
Being an urban, Hong Kong woman of first colonial education then American professional training, I have almost nothing in common with the "Asian woman" as presented in most Asian theological literature. I have to constantly scrutinize or deny the validity of my educational background, my present middle-class social location, and my teaching profession in order to "come to terms" with the identity of a poor, suffering Asian woman. However, in the reading of the three stories of 1 and 2 Kings above, I find a different room to articulate for the first time my own experience as an urban, professional woman in Hong Kong. This is perhaps why I value the principle of self-subsistence and autonomy so much in the three stories. Despite so much criticism to capitalist societies and colonialism in Asia, a Westernized Hong Kong woman like myself finds immense opportunities exactly because of such background. What the "Western" culture and colonial institution have provided me with are an enormous space to seek economic independency and thereby a high degree of self-autonomy. Similarly, despite a series of problems arising from China's opening to foreign capitalist investments, women from poor rural areas of China are taking their chances as well. There is no question that they are suffering from highly exploitative working conditions in the Special Economic Zone (SEZ). Nevertheless, the peasant women originally from interior West of China who went to work in the SEZ shall live to enjoy an increasing degree of economic and thereby social autonomy. I am sure the same is happening to the huge numbers of women migrant workers from all parts of Asia.
Fullness of life certainly must not simply identified with material well-being alone, but the assurance of a subsistence level of material well-being does constitute fundamentally our sense of social and personal integrity, which I believe is an important part of life in fullness.
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