Re-Visioning the Bible in Martha Moody

“Re-vision – the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction – is for women more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival.” (Adrienne Rich, “‘When We Dead Awaken’: Writing as Re-Vision,” 11)

Martha Moody is rich with reimagined Bible stories, both within the story proper and Amanda’s own writing. As Amanda writes her own stories, she combines, alters, and revises biblical stories to give them a new meaning. Between pages 121-124, Amanda presents a story about Martha Moody, Azreal the winged cow, and a group of men outside Martha’s store; this story contains biblical references to the golden calf (Exodus 32), to Jacob wrestling with God (Genesis 32:22), and it even presents Martha as a Christ figure at the end. The way Amanda reimagines the golden calf story is especially interesting to me, and it fits well with Adrienne Rich’s claim that the act of “re-vision… is an act of survival,” as Amanda takes a violent story and rewrites its ending to ensure everyone survives.

In the biblical account, Moses, leader of the Israelite nation, has gone up to Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, leaving his brother, the head priest Aaron, in charge of the people. As they wait for Moses to return, the people grow impatient and uncertain as to what has happened to Moses, and finally ask Aaron to make them a new god. Aaron commands them to give him all their gold jewelry and proceeds to melt it down and form it into an idol in the shape of a calf. Upon returning to the camp, Moses sees the calf and the people worshipping it; Exodus 32:20 describes his reaction: “And he took the calf the people had made and burned it in the fire; then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it.” Though harsh, this is not the Israelites’ only punishment. Moses stands at the outskirts of the camp and calls, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me” (Ex. 32:26). He commands everyone who follows him to “go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor” (Ex. 32:27). Three thousand people die as a result. However, this still isn’t enough: “the Lord struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made” (Ex. 32:35).

Amanda uses elements from this story in her own writing, but her re-vision of it replaces Aaron with Martha Moody. The Israelites’ demand “Come, make us gods who will go before us” (Ex. 32:1) becomes the men of the town asking Martha, “Could you give us an image of God we could care about?” (Stinson 122). This request is, itself, a desire for re-vision – for a new image of God in a form that suits the people’s wants and needs. Azreal (in Islam theology, the angel of death; in Amanda’s stories, a winged cow) joins Martha and tells her, echoing Exodus, “Tell them to take off their golden earrings and bring them to you” (122). In a move that reminds the reader of modern heteronormative gender standards, the sheriff hears this and responds, “Um, Ma’am. None of us wear earrings. If you could wait for us to go home and talk to our wives, we could come up with a pile of gold, I’d guarantee” (122). It is at this point that the two stories diverge in a drastic way. Where the Exodus account shows a horrific massacre and a plague, Amanda’s story diminishes the violence; though the men are still ‘punished’ for their request in a way, there is no plague, no massacre, no death. Instead, watches, guns, spurs, coins, and belt buckles rise up in the air as if by magnetic force and pull the men into “a squirming pile… stuck together by the metal on their persons” (123). As they lie stuck together on the ground, the men witness another reimagined Old Testament story, as Martha and Azreal wrestle each other and evoke the image of Jacob wrestling with God. The wrestling match concludes with Martha flying away on Azreal’s back. As the two of them disappear, “the men found that they could untangle themselves, and they went home with whatever guns and watches they found stuck in their pockets” (124).

Returning to Adrienne Rich’s idea of re-vision as an act of survival, I think it is significant that Amanda references the story of the golden calf in her own writing. She takes a story set in a patriarchy and replaces the primary male figure with a woman shopkeeper; furthermore, she takes a violent, death-filled story and changes the ending to ensure everyone survives. While Rich’s arguments center around the survival of real women writers in a patriarchal society, her idea can be re-visioned to address the way Amanda’s stories are a reimagining of biblical accounts.

Believe us.

“The women feed him, bathe his feet / with tears, bring spices, find the empty tomb, / burst out to tell the men, are not believed. …“ (Kenyon, 42)

These three lines belong to Jane Kenyon’s poem “Depression”. The lines describe the biblical story of the discovery of Christ’s resurrection. The first part “The women feed him, bathe his feet […]” refers to two stories in which Christ was still alive.  The women welcomed him into their home and cared for him and washed his feet with perfume. The second part “[…] with tears, bring spices […]” refers to the biblical story in which the women come to visit Christ’s tomb, to care for him, even in his death. However, they find the tomb empty and when they report to the men waiting outside, they are not believed until one of the men goes into the tomb to see for himself. The verbs ‘feed’, ‘bathe’, ‘bring’, ‘find’ and ‘burst’ are all active on the women’s side, they do this on their own account. Still, the last verb ‘believed’ is put in a passive voice, indicating that the women’s sincerity is only validated by someone else, or rather by a man. Their voice is only heard and acknowledged through someone else – they do not have this advocacy on their own.

In these few lines, a lot of history can be found. Women have a long history of not being believed in all areas of life, but health is a very important one. Often, women talking about issues of health are not taken seriously because people believe them to be weak or whiny. Consequently, a huge number of women has been suffering from medical conditions, often mental health issues, which are not being treated or they have to diagnose themselves. Additionally, relating this to the title of the poem, “Depressions”, people with depression are often not believed concerning their condition and some doctors still refuse to treat it as a serious mental illness. Women and people with depression alike are an important part of society, but as soon as they don’t align completely with the monolithic expectations of society anymore their opinions are dismissed. Furthermore, both are, to a certain extent, subject to the patriarchy, as women, like in the story, need a man’s validation to be heard and similarly the health industry is, like so many others, still strongly influenced by the patriarchy.

What I am trying to say is, that society still lacks a lot in terms of equality and understanding. The women in the biblical story should have been believed and their words should have been accepted to be the truth. Exactly like people who suffer from depression should be believed when they talk about their illness and their opinion should not be questioned by people who don’t believe in it just because they have never experienced it themselves.