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Servant or Child?

How Do We Understand Our Relationship With God?

by Carol Howard Merritt

Psalm Reading: Psalm 116

For Sunday, May 8, 2011: Year A - Easter 3

I read The Handmaid’s Tale when I was in college. I’m a huge fan of Margaret Atwood. She is full of prophetic vision as she details dystopia. And after reading the book, I had a creepy concern that history just might repeat itself. Of course, the story has been a thread of varying strength throughout human history–there have been women who were domestic servants who were used as sexual slaves to bear children for their masters.

Servant? Child? Sex Slave?

I cringe at the thought. But, of course, Atwood did not introduce me to the idea of the handmaid. I had been reading about these types of relationships for many years, because I was a student of the Bible. I know that we can point to many places in our Scripture where women have been subjugated as sexual servants or concubines. It makes me wince when I read the texts. And yet, in Psalm 116, the poet seems to use this relationship as a metaphor to describe his relationship with God. He is the child of God and God’s handmaid. And as such, he is God’s servant.

Wait. The relationship has to be more complicated than that. Is he also God’s child?

Excusing the Wrongs of the Past

As a woman born in the 1970s, you can tell me all day long that sexual slavery was culturally acceptable, that the relationship between Hagar and Abraham was okay, that Esther was not raped. You might explain to me that I cannot take my postmodern feminist expectations and assume that ancient people ought to live with my understandings of gender roles and sexual relationships. And I will tell you it was sin then just as it is now.

If we excuse the wrongs of the past, then it would be too simple to ignore human trafficking and too difficult to stop what might occur in the future.

And so I turn to the Psalm, with a pit in my gut, knowing that to understand our relationship with God in this way feels revolting.

I must not be the only person who is uncomfortable with it.

Dancing With Words

The translations turn out differently, and we can almost see the scholars dancing with the words. They are trying to move the syllables this way and that, making them flow better, or attempting to make more sense out of them. Or are they trying to smooth over the repugnance?

O Lord, I am your servant;

I am your servant, the child of your serving-maid.

And we’re cutting into the dance now, trying to make sense of it for ourselves, when we get to the next verse:

You have loosed my bonds.

This can also be interpreted in different ways. One reading looks at the words as an imperative. The “You” becomes understood and the statement turns into a command: “Loose my bonds!”

The Hardest Question

And so I want to ask so many questions of this text. I want to ask the voices in this chorus, “Is this a command? Is this a celebration? Is this an acknowledgement that we have moved from servitude to liberation—and even more than liberation—we have become sons and daughters?”  Yet, the hardest question to me is, “How do we understand our relationship with God?

How do you understand it?

Carol Howard Merritt is a pastor at Western Presbyterian Church, an intergenerational congregation in Washington, D.C. Western’s deep commitment to serving the poor in the city has helped to initiate programs like Miriam’s Kitchen, a social service program for the homeless which provides a hot, nutritious breakfast and dinner for over 200 men and women each weekday. Carol is the author of Reframing Hope (Alban, 2010) and Tribal Church, (Alban, 2007). Carol is the co-host of God Complex Radio with Landon Whitsitt. And she blogs for the Huffington Post. Carol is a frequent conference speaker. Her blog is at


  1. Aaron Billard says:

    There was a discussion on CBC radio in Canada about Johns this past week, who were saying that for them, sex trade workers are their only source of affection, and if women choose this work, why not support it in safe ways?

    The rebuttal was, of course, that women within the sex trade often come from a history of sexual abuse, drug abuse, phyiscal and emotional abuse, that the sex trade is furthering that process.

    We would never ask that for our daugthers, and certainly by raising the question in this passage you stand for women who have no voice in Biblical scholarship, or within many places within the church itself.

  2. Janet L. Bohren says:

    You are correct on so many levels – 1) the sexual use/abuse of women and girls at any time in history is sin and for the women and girls was devastating and oppressive and often resulted in their death. 2)Translation of Biblical texts is hard and often complex and murky, with no “right” answer. 3)These texts are avoided because we do not know how to talk about sexuality and culture, either today or in history. I take these texts for the very ancient manuscripts they are – writing that tried to make sense of the world and relationship to God in terms of the writer’s context and culture. Thus, I do not use them as a guide for understanding my relationship to God in this time and culture. But they illustrate the struggles of women and men to define their relationship to God throughout time and thus are helpful in that they raise questions such as you pose.

How do you read?