Stories like the Virgin Birth lack freely given female consent. Why don’t they bother us more?
Powerful gods and demi-gods impregnating human women—it’s a common theme in the history of religion, and it’s more than a little rapey.
Zeus comes to Danae in the form of a golden shower, cutting “the knot of intact virginity” and leaving her pregnant with the Greek hero, Perseus.
Jupiter forcibly overcomes Europa by transforming himself into a white bull and abducting her. He imprisons her on the Isle of Crete, over time fathering three children.
Hermes copulates with a shepherdess to produce Pan.
The legendary founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus are conceived when the Roman god Mars impregnates Rea Silvia, a vestal virgin.
Helen of Troy, the rare female offspring of a god-human mating, is produced when Zeus takes the form of a swan to get access to Leda.
In some accounts Alexander the Great and the Emperor Augustus are sowed by gods in the form of serpents, by Phoebus and Jupiter respectively.
Though the earliest Christians had a competing story, in the Gospel of Luke, the Virgin Mary gets pregnant when the spirit of the Lord comes upon her and the power of the Most High overshadows her.
The earliest accounts of Zoroaster’s birth have him born of a human father and mother, much like Jesus; but in later accounts his mother is pierced by a shaft of divine light.
The Hindu god Shiva has sex with the human woman Madhura, who has come to worship him while his wife Parvati is away. Parvati turns Madhura into a frog, but after 12 years in a well she regains human form and gives birth to Indrajit.
The Buddha’s mother Maya finds herself pregnant after being entered from the side by a god in a dream.
The impregnation process may be a “ravishing” or seduction or, as in the cases of Buddha and Jesus, some kind of nonsexual procreative penetration. The story may come from an Eastern or Western religious tradition, pagan or Christian. But these encounters between beautiful young women and gods have one thing in common. None of them has freely given female consent as a part of the narrative. (Luke’s Mary assents after being not asked but told by a powerful supernatural being what is going to happen to her, and she responds with language emphasizing the power differential. “Behold the bond-slave of the Lord: be it done to me according to your word.” L 1:38)
Who needs consent, freely given? If he’s a god, she’s got to want it, right?
Whether or not the delectable young thing puts up a protest, whether or not seduction requires deception, whether or not the woman already has a husband or love, whether or not she is physically forced, the basic assumption is that the union between a god and a woman is overwhelming in an orgasmic way, not a bloody, head-bashed-against-the-ground kind of way.
And afterwards? Well, what woman wouldn’t want to be pregnant with the son or daughter of a god? That is how the stories play out. In the Luke story, Mary later exults in the honor that has befallen her (L 1:46-55).
Underneath this remarkably enduring and widespread trope lie two assumptions that, in their most primitive form, may trace their roots all the way back to evolutionary biology.
The biology hypothesis, much oversimplified, goes something like this: Males and females of each species have instincts that maximize their genes in the next generation. Among humans, females seek the highest quality sperm donors that they can attract. They maximize the quality and survival of their children by mating with high status, powerful males. Males, on the other hand, maximize the quality and quantity of their offspring by seeking young fertile females (with beauty signaling fertility), controlling some females and fending off other males while also spreading their seed around if they can get away with it.
Biology may be the starting point, but over time, human impulses are embellished and institutionalized and made sacred by culture and religion. The mythic trope of gods mating with human females embodies powerful cultural and religious beliefs about sexuality. Familiar stories of this type derive from male dominated societies, which means they legitimize male reproductive desires: Powerful men not only want to control the valuable commodity of female fertility, they should. Gods ordain it and model it. And they prescribe punishments for those—especially females—who violate the proper order of things.
The miraculous conception stories I listed may have roots in pre-history, in early religions centered on star worship and the agricultural cycle, but they emerged in modern form during the Iron Age. By this time in history, most women were chattel. Like children, livestock and slaves, they were literally possessions of men, and their primary economic and spiritual value lay in their ability to produce purebred offspring of known lineage. The men at the top owned concubines and harems, and virgin females were counted among the spoils of war. (See, for example, the Old Testament story of the virgin Midianites in which Yahweh commands the Israelites to kill the used women but keep the virgin girls for themselves.)
It was also a time when gods picked favorites and meddled in the affairs of tribes and nations, and great men were born great. Small wonder, then, that so many powerful men claimed powerful paternity. In the tradition of the ancient Hebrews, this took the form of an obsession with lineage and pure, favored bloodlines. Writers of the Hebrew Bible trace the genealogy of King David back to Abraham, for example, and the genealogy of Abraham to the first man, Adam. In the Greek and Roman worlds, entitlement claims took the form of assigning supernatural paternity to public figures. The Christian tradition, somewhat awkwardly, tries to lay claim to both of these—tracing the lineage of Jesus through his father Joseph back to King David, while simultaneously denying that he had a human father.
This is the context for the miraculous conception stories, and in this context, the consent of a woman is irrelevant. Within a society that treats female sexuality as a male possession, the only consent that can be violated is the consent of a woman’s owner, the man with the rights to her reproductive capacity—typically her father, fiancé, or husband. Many Christians are surprised when told that nowhere in the Bible, either Old Testament or New, does any writer say that a woman’s consent is necessary or even desirable before sex.
This omission is more than regrettable, it is tragic. Two thousand years after Hebrew and Aramaic texts were assembled into the modern Jewish Bible, 1600 years after a Roman Catholic committee voted books in and out of the Christian Bible, 1400 years after Muhammad wrote the Koran (which draws heavily on the moral framework of the Judeo-Christian tradition), we still struggle with the question of female consent. Our struggle is made immeasurably harder by the presence of ancient texts that have become modern idols—texts that put God’s name on men’s desires.
The most extreme example may be a document published by the Islamic State, outlining rules for the treatment of sexual slaves, rules drawn from the Koran. Closer to home for most Americans is the awkward but widespread existence of Christian leaders who teach that a woman’s glory is in childbearing, and that a woman who fails to service her husband whenever he desires is failing to serve God.
But even closer to home for many is the shocking prevalence on college campuses and in society at large of sexual manipulation and coercion perpetrated by males who otherwise seem morally intact. One can’t help but notice that a large number of high profile cases involve high status males: fraternity members, a famous actor, a radio host, small town football stars and big league professional athletes—men, in other words, who think they are gods. Convinced of their own deific qualities, it just follows that the object of their attentions has gotta want it—and if she doesn’t, well, that fine too, because when a god wants a woman, consent isn’t really part of the story.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.
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At least with the old pantheons, there was plenty of evidence of the women NOT wanting and and protesting and attempting to escape The monotheistic sorts of Rapey Dudes really DO assume the act literally IS “God’s gift”!
“Helen of Troy, the rare female offspring of a god-human mating, is produced when Zeus takes the form of a swan to get access to Leda.”
At least Zeus took Leda to dinner first, but she should have figured SOMEthing was wrong when he booked reservations at a granary.
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The earth-mother of the Aztec, Coatlique (also, Coatlicue), so named, “skirt of snakes” for her attire, wore, in addition to the skirt, a necklace of human hearts and hands, and doubtless went dateless on a Saturday night.
She was impregnated by an obsidian knife and gave birth to Coyolxauhqui, goddess of the moon, as well as four hundred sons, who became the stars of the southern sky. Some time later, a ball of feathers fell from the sky; curious, she picked it up, examined it, and tucked it in her waistband. When she looked for it later, it was gone and she discovered that she was again pregnant.
Is there a birth-control pill that protects from obsidian knives and feather-balls?
“Males, on the other hand, maximize the quality and quantity of their offspring by seeking young fertile females (with beauty signaling fertility)”
You neglected to mention the male obsession with mammary glands, which signifies (erroneous or not) an adequate milk supply for the offspring.
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Not entirely. Infatuation with breasts is mostly a western thing, and it occasionally goes so far that a man will discorage breastfeeding an infant because he thinks the breasts are sexual object just for him.
Many other cultures will see the nape of the neck, the calves, knees, eyes, or weight as the desireable characteristic.
“In the tradition of the ancient Hebrews, this took the form of an obsession with lineage and pure, favored bloodlines.”
This certainly explains Abraham’s obsession to send his servant all the way to Syria from the Levant, to obtain Isaac’s 14-year old cousin to be Isaac’s wife (he was 60).
“… large number of high profile cases involve high status males: fraternity members…”
The latest case here in Canada involves a self-styled ‘Gentlemans Club’ of dentistry students. On their facebook page male students in the group voted on which woman they’d like to have “hate” sex with and joked about using chloroform on women. They wrote things like defining a penis as “the tool used to wean and convert lesbians and virgins into useful, productive members of society.”
Another member responded, “And by productive I’m assuming you mean it inspires them to become chefs, housekeepers, babysitters, etc.”
The message of the gospel is love me(God) or I will “worse than kill you” (eternity in hell). If that’s not rape what is.
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You’ve run a number of issues together here that beg several questions. Myths have multiple layers of meaning and significance. They have an exoteric meaning and an esoteric meaning. Never mind Jung. Socrates makes this clear in the beginning of the Phaedrus when he recounts the story of Boreas taking away Oreithyia who was playing with Pharmakeia: at the exoteric level, we have a story that provides some sort of explanation about geological / natural phenomena in the natural world; at an esoteric level, we have a warning about the powers of divine madness associated with sexual passion and dabbling in magic (with a “k” for the Crowleyites). Your interpretations above seem rather literal-minded, ignoring altogether the deeper esoteric meaning of myth in many cultures. Perhaps your interpretations here are like a Rorschach test — they say more about you than what is in the myths themselves. Or, to put it differently, if you’re going to deconstruct or use some sort of critical theory / Lacanian analysis here, how can you be sure you’re not simply projecting your own neuroses about sexuality onto your subject matter?
Wait. You’re suggesting that I project my own neuroses about sexuality onto my subject matter but the cultures or individuals that authored the myths didn’t? My interpretations here are a Rorschach test? –That is exactly what I am saying about the myths themselves.
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Not only is the bible story one of rape, it’s child rape as Mary was certainly not 18.
Moreover, one wonders why an omnipotent deity would not simply create his offspring as he did Adam. What is the point of the birth? It really adds nothing to the Jesus myth.
The point of the birth is the free consent of humanity to God’s act of Love in repairing the ontological breach that resulted from the Fall. In order for love to be genuine and one involving participation and communion with “the Other,” it has to be freely given, freely accepted, and freely returned. If it isn’t free at any of these junctures, it isn’t genuine love but coercion. When Mary consented to be the human means by which God would enter creation to restore it, humanity — in the person of Mary — freely returned the love of God by agreeing to be the means by which He would take on human form. It is because of this that the genealogies in the New Testament are not genealogies of Jesus but rather of Mary: the Incarnation and the mystery of Man’s relation to God is centered on Mary — without her, there could be no Incarnation. She is at the center of the mystery of the God-man. To create a savior would involve imposing him ( the savior) on His creation, never mind the idea that it would have not been God Himself taking on human form but a created representative.
You do realize that this is your story, not the one cobbled together by the folks who assembled the books of Matthew and Luke? You (or I or really anyone) can weave any religious story that fits personally, but that doesn’t make the story definitive for anyone else, and the weaker the evidence the less likely others are to find it satisfying.
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“Ontological breach that resulted from the Fall”?
First off, do you believe the Fall was a real historical event? If not, then what is the real story of the breach?
Second, how is this an “ontological” breach?
Third, as Dr. Tarico points out in her original post, Mary didn’t consent until after she was informed that she was going to give birth. If Mary had free will, could she have refused?
“it isn’t genuine love, but coercion.” Christianity purports that God’s message is: Believe in, love, and abide in me, or you will go to hell. How is that not coercion?
Talk about projection.
True Blasphemy. Repent for the kingdom of God us at hand. Those who call upon The Lord shall be saved.
I’ll pass, but thanks for the offer – if I give you a cookie will you go away?
Hardly rape when in Luke 1:38 Mary agrees to it:
And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
Also, I hope you realise that 21st laws from other countries that draw a line in the sand at age 18 did not apply at that stage, even though I believe those laws to be a good idea.
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Did a girl alone have the right to give her consent, though, without the presence of her father or fiance?
In terms of consent to be with child, it appears quite clear that Mary’s sole consent was accepted by the angel in Luke 1:38. Right after she gave her consent, it says “And the angel departed from her.” Her consent was enough.
Perhaps other family members culturally would have thought otherwise, but in this instance, Mary’s consent was clearly accepted.
As I hope I indicated in the article, even if the story were history rather than, as most scholars believe, mythology, what the author of Luke describes is not freely given consent. Mary is told, not asked, what will happen to her, and she is told under the circumstances of an insurmountable power differential. For many reasons, advanced ethical standards recognize that it is virtually impossible for sexual or reproductive consent to be free of coercion under such circumstances, which is why the legal construct of statutory rape exists.
Valerie Tarico said: “You do realize that this is your story . . .” Which “story” are you referring to here? This reminds me a bit of Nietzsche’s take on Heraclitus who said you can never step into the same river twice, only to have Parmenides say you can never step into the same river. If everything is interpretation and ontology goes theoretical, you can’t even say I have a story since your story is the story of my story. What I wrote above is not “my” story — it is the understanding of the witness of the Church as expressed in the traditions, writings, and liturgy of the Church. If you want to question “that story,” you’ll need to role your sleeves up and hit your Church Fathers hard. But, if you question that tradition, what are you really talking about then? Are you not like Heraclitus at that point, unable to even talk about a tradition at all? If we all have stories then none of us have stories since everything is a story and we can’t transcend the boundaries of our own subjectivity and interpretative frameworks. Now we’re in the province of the deconstructionists — again, Heraclitus and Parmenides, before the illusive river. Whether or not someone finds the story definitive is, in some sense, beside the point if one isn’t interested in entering into “the story” in the first place. The New Age mystic sees synchronicity in coincidence and concludes the existence of a hidden realm; the physicist sees statistical probability and that’s all; the atheist sees psychological projection. Is one of them right and the others wrong? Is there a metaphysical essence underneath the world of appearance that will answer the question? They can’t all be right . . . right? Any answer to the question requires that one first believe in coincidence. If you dismiss the idea itself, you’ll get nowhere. Those that believe the “story” is cobbled together (never mind the issue of what would or would not support such a claim) aren’t likely to take it as evidence because it’s not clear what they think “evidence” is or what would count as “evidence.” Here, I’m guessing they’ll borrow something from the hard sciences. But, if we turn to Kuhn or Feyerabend, those certainties aren’t as comfortable as we thought — again, back to Heraclitus and Parmenides.
My father, “god” rest his soul, was fond of saying that “Saint” Joseph was the patron saint of cuckolds. Well, what can you expect from a French Catholic communist? Actually not a contradiction, there were lots of those people in the pre and post WWII years, because “communism” was thought to be, in it’s ideal form, an extension of the gospel teachings. Back to Mary, I remember also the stories being told on long winter evenings of the North Peace River country (where he, mom, and the beginning of a tribe of boys had emigrated in 1950, as we sat at the kitchen table doing homework or mending our leather moccasins by the yellow light of the coal oil lamp, of the story having been made up to hide the fact that Mary had a shepherd lover with whom she had intercourse, from whom she became pregnant, and to hide her adultery which could have gotten her death by stoning, invented the story of the visitation, and etc., then “agreed” to being taken on as wife by an older man of her family’s tribal group, a man named Joseph. That’s the non-historical, non-mythical, popular home grown version, not the canonical one. Makes the most sense to me. And it has a kind of tragi-comical romantic side to it. Of course, that is definitely “my” story, not necessarily anyone else’s. The kind of people able to take these stories lightly and humorously seem to be dying off.
Your Mary story has always been my best-guess scenario as well.
Regarding communism, dictatorial tyrants have given the system the bad name it now bears. The fact is, the Sumerians, the first group recognized as occupying the Mesopotamian valley, maintained a stable, communistic theocracy, in which everyone worked, for over 4,000 years. One of the factors that contributed to its downfall, weakening its structure and making it susceptible to attack in its last years by encroaching Semitic Akkadians, was its policy changes that allowed the wealthy to buy their way out of community service. The unity had been broken.
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Here is one example of a modern consent standard, “Free prior and informed consent’ (FPIC), is the principle that a community has the right to give or withhold its consent to proposed projects that may affect the lands they customarily own, occupy or otherwise use.”
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In this where does “God” draw the line in morals when impregnating Mary? In this case Gabriel as we learned in earlier post i made is the one who warned her and impregnated her. So in this case there was sort of a consent – so i argue that Abraham’s God did ask for consent even though Gabriel is a Child/creation of God. He may be as well part of God. And Mary, being indifferent about the rape and then rejoicing in the pregnancy – I’d say that it was not a matter of rape really. Reblogged on https://modernphilosophystandards.wordpress.com/ I think it was the most ethical “rape” that “God” or Gabriel could constitute. I would think if he would’ve just done it, it would’ve been a different story.
Another great analysis. I recently came across a “Funny or Die” video exposing the rape scenario of the holiday song “It’s Cold Outside.” For a while I’d known the song to be horrific when seen at face value, but there’s such an acceptance socially of the song and it’s done often in happy way that it’s easy to forget. Similar can be said of these myths that get handed down as ethical examples (for who else should we emulate if not the morally beneficent deity?). They’re often blindly accepted and the moral horrors then saturate public consciousness.
I wrote a while back on how divine causation removes any inherent meaning to be had by humanity: http://lifeweavings.org/2015/04/28/the-loss-of-purpose-and-human-value-in-divine-causation-2/
As an aside, I like how some of the responses from believers when faced with this is to go into increasingly complicated theological explanations. Seems “god” needs a defender and is rather poor at communication.
Your last sentence reminded me of this quotation I saw on Twitter recently
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I could take issue with the usage of the terms “faith” and “fact,” but I agree with the point. I’ve written before on how there’s no such thing as a true believer, taking the “no true scotsman” fallacy to its inevitable conclusion. There’s simply no such thing as a bible-only believer, not least of which is because there’s no such thing as a singular “bible.” Then add in social assumptions, prior learning and personal desires, the result is belief reflects the believer, not the other way around.
This also accounts for the widespread custom of “sexual hospitality” throughout the Patriarchal Middle East.
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You may already know about this awesome book but I’d highly recommend it. “Women Who Fly” by Serinity Young.
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