I have been asked to speak today about an obscure topic. The topic given to me was “Women in the Book of Mormon and the New Testament”. On face value, it doesn’t sound that obscure, but once I started researching I realized just how obscure it is.
Let’s take the Book of Mormon, for example. There's only six women mentioned by name in the Book of Mormon and three of those are referencing the Bible (Eve, Sarah, Mary). Out of the three remaining women, one is a prostitute, so probably not appropriate to talk about on Mother’s Day, and then I am left with Sariah and Abish - Great women, but my pickings are fairly small as far as stories to tell. (source: http://eom.byu.edu/index.php/Women_in_the_Book_of_Mormon)
When women are mentioned generally in the Book of Mormon, there are a few cool references ("we do not doubt our mothers knew it”), but there's also quite a few times where women are mentioned as sex symbols (harlots, concubines, etc). (Source: B of M index: women)
Those of you on Facebook know that this week I put a little poll in the ward facebook page asking who your favorite Book of Mormon heroes are. I had thought—“well maybe even though there’s only a few women mentioned by name, people may really like those few women or maybe the women who are mentioned but don’t have names are really meaningful and ward members may and have great insights about them”. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. Nephi, Enos, Moroni, Mormon, Brother of Jared, Benjamin and Abinadi were the heroes mentioned. And don’t get me wrong—those are great figures in the Book of Mormon (Enos has always been my favorite), but it doesn’t help me with my fairly obscure topic.
Additionally, there is no book in the Book of Mormon told through the perspective of a woman. The Book of Mormon is a book written by men and dominated by male protagonists.
Realizing that the stories of women during the Book of Mormon times go largely untold may cause many to feel that the Book of Mormon is a sexist manuscript that can’t be true. Though I may agree that it is sexist, I contest that this is part of the testament of it’s veracity. The Book of Mormon is a part of history and the history of the world has been largely dominated by sexist beliefs.
Political Science professor and Mormon Scholar Valerie Hudson Cassler wrote, “It is very difficult to be raised in one of the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Islam, and Christianity), as I was, and not come away with some fairly unpleasant conclusions about women. Depending on the religion and sect involved, one may be taught that the first woman was feeble-minded or a murderess and that all her daughters are marred by that fact, that a woman’s body is unclean, that God meant women to submit to their husbands and in general be subservient to men, and that divinity is male and male alone. (Of course, echoes of such teachings can be found in other faith traditions besides the Abrahamic, as well.)” SOURCE: http://mormonscholarstestify.org/1718/valerie-hudson-cassler
My guess is there are many here today who have felt this way. Her article later describes one very important story about a woman that is clarified only in the Book of Mormon – the story of Eve. In the Bible we learn that Eve tempted Adam and Adam fell and it is easy to blame Eve for our misery. The Book of Mormon, of course, clarifies this story and helps us to realize that what Eve did was essential to our existence on earth. I’ll read an excerpt from 2 Nephi chapter 2:
18 And because he [SATAN] had fallen from heaven, and had become miserable forever, he sought also the misery of all mankind. Wherefore, he said unto Eve, yea, even that old serpent, who is the devil, who is the father of all lies, wherefore he said: Partake of the forbidden fruit, and ye shall not die, but ye shall be as God, knowing good and evil.
19 And after Adam and Eve had partaken of the forbidden fruit they were driven out of the garden of Eden, to till the earth. [So at this point, Satan probably thinks he got his way—that Eve did what he said and therefore people would be miserable forever, just like he was hoping for. It appears, though, from the next few scriptures, that Eve knew better than that]
20 And they have brought forth children; yea, even the family of all the earth. [Of course we know here that they couldn’t have had children in the Garden of Eden, so this was the only way for us to be born]
21 And the days of the children of men were prolonged, according to the will of God, that they might repent while in the flesh; wherefore, their state became a state of probation, and their time was lengthened, according to the commandments which the Lord God gave unto the children of men. For he gave commandment that all men must repent; for he showed unto all men that they were lost, because of the transgression of their parents. [Our loving God created an opportunity for us to be born and then to repent—all because of that decision that Eve made]
22 And now, behold, if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden. And all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever, and had no end.
23 And they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin. [So Adam and Eve would have stayed in this state of perfection, but it wouldn’t have been a state of joy because they were unable to have all emotions when they couldn’t contrast]
24 But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things.
25 Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy. [Though it doesn’t say it in this often quoted scripture, we know from the scriptures above that Adam would not have fallen had Eve not eaten of the fruit first. So, in essence, we owe our existence and our ability to feel joy to the story of Eve]
[And in the last verse I’m going to read to you, we learn God’s solution to the fact that we are born in a fallen state]:
26 And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall. And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day, according to the commandments which God hath given.
This scripture passage I read is a very clarifying moment in the Book of Mormon for women. It turns that Christian-notion that women were the first temptresses on it’s head and shows that this story – the story of our creation - was really about Eve and her courage to think outside the box and do things slightly unconventionally—for the good of the entire world.
Mormon Scholar Hugh Nibley expounded on this idea, saying, “it is the woman who sees through Satan’s disguise of clever hypocrisy, identifies him, and exposes him for what he is. She discovers the principle of opposites by which the world is governed and views it with high-spirited optimism: it is not wrong that there is opposition in everything, it is a constructive principle making it possible for people to be intelligently happy. It is better to know the score than not to know it. Finally, it is the “seed of the woman” that repels the serpent and embraces the gospel: she it is who first accepts the gospel of repentance.” SOURCE: https://publications.mi.byu.edu/fullscreen/?pub=1065
Let’s move to the New Testament now—which does have more stories of women.
Those on Facebook also know that the day after I asked for your Book of Mormon heroes, I asked for your favorite New Testament stories. Not as many ward members chimed in on that post, but out of the ones who did, one person mentioned the story in John 8 of Jesus being asked about the woman accused of adultery. This story reminded me of one of the reasons that I love the New Testament and the example set by Jesus in it. Christ always treated women with complete respect and love.
Writer Dorothy Sayer, said of how Christ was depicted in the New Testament, “They [women] had never known a man like this Man—there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized…who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for the, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unself-conscious."
I’ll read the story from John 8 now, starting in verse 3:
3 And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him [JESUS] a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst,
4 They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. [Of course, if she was caught in the act of adultery, there was a man caught in the act of it as well, but they weren’t concerned about that]
5 Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?
6 This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. [I like how at this point where these men are taunting him, he doesn’t let it bother him. He merely gives himself some time to think and for them to cool down]
7 So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. [He’s so matter-of-fact about this. He gives them a clear opportunity to think of their own actions rather than focus on this poor woman]
8 And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.
9 And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. [so here he put them in their place. They couldn’t do it anymore and had to leave.]
10 When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?
11 She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more. [He truly was so quick to forgive and showed so much love to her.]
Another example of Christ treating women with respect occurs in the story of the woman at the well. Christian pastor Greg Cantelmo tells the story as he depicts it like this:
“We see in the gospels that Jesus treated women with incredible respect. A classic passage in this regard is Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman.34 This is a remarkable exchange, since Jesus was not only interacting with a Samaritan, a member of a race that was despised by Jews,35 but also a woman. And Jesus’ conversation with this woman is probably the most profound discussion of theology in the gospels. Women were not encouraged to have interaction with male strangers.36
“But Jesus went beyond the cultural ethnic and gender barriers and treated her as a person who was worth his offer of the living water of eternal life.37 He didn’t treat her in reference to what others said about her, her accomplishments or possessions, and he didn’t deal with her based on her appearance. He establishes through this woman that whoever accepts his offer of living water, that person will receive it. The woman saw the barrier as ethnic,38whereas the disciples returned and made an issue of gender.39 But for Jesus, gender and ethnicity are irrelevant in his offer of salvation.
“She comes to the well at noonday, the hottest hour of the day, which whispers a rumor of her reputation. The other women come at dusk, a cooler, more comfortable hour. They come not only to draw water, but to take off their veils and slip out from under the thumb of a male-dominated society. They come for companionship, to talk, to laugh, and to barter gossip—much of which centers around this woman. So shunned by these women, she braves the sun’s scorn. Accusing thoughts are her only companions as she ponders the futile road her life has traveled. She’s looked for love in all the wrong places, going from one dead-end relationship to another. For her, marriage has been a retreating mirage. Again and again she has returned to the matrimonial well, hoping to draw from it something to quench her thirst for love and happiness. But again and again, she has left that well disappointed.
“And so, under the weight of such thoughts she comes to Jacob’s well, her empty water jar a telling symbol of her life. As her eyes meet the Savior’s, he sees within her a cavernous aching, a cistern in her soul that will forever remain empty unless he fills it. And there she meets Jesus.40
“This encounter shows to all women that regardless of past mistakes, hurts, pain, and failures Jesus wants to fill women with his love because women are people intrinsically whom he values. Every woman is created in his image, a daughter of Eve, and he offers the greatest ministry ever; cleansing, forgiveness, hope, meaning, significance, and a life of power and purpose.”
We see from this and several other stories from the New Testament how Jesus discussed religion with women. He taught them and clearly felt it was important that they played an integral role in His gospel. After his ministry, when he was resurrected, it was women who first found the empty tomb and were given the responsibility to share the message of the resurrection.
Matthew 28 tells the story:
1 In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre.
5 And the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified.
6 He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay.
7 And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead; and, behold, he goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him: lo, I have told you.
8 And they departed quickly from the sepulchre with fear and great joy; and did run to bring his disciples word.
9 ¶ And as they went to tell his disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail. And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him.
10 Then said Jesus unto them, Be not afraid: go tell my brethren that they go into Galilee, and there shall they see me.
This story not only shows the faith of these women, it shows the importance that Christ placed on their responsibility. He entrusted them to testify of His resurrection – at perhaps the most crucial time in history.
The scriptures and stories that I’ve shared today were chosen in hopes to help the women and girls in the congregation who may have struggled with the gender roles they’ve seen in the scriptures and in the church. Admittedly, it can be difficult “to be raised in one of the Abrahamic faiths … and not come away with some fairly unpleasant conclusions about women.” My hope and prayer is that this talk has helped some women to see more clearly the eternal value that women do have. Women’s opinions should be respected, and women should be empowered. Women’s skills and minds have been crucial to the existence of humankind and the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.