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Introduction from 'And Sarah Laughed' The Status of Woman in the Old Testament, by John H.Otwell


from And Sarah Laughed
The Status of Woman in the Old Testament, pp 9-13.
by John H.Otwell

published by The Westminster Press, 1977

The title for this examination of the status of woman in the Old Testament has been taken from Gen., ch. 18. Abraham, sitting in front of his tent in the heat of the day, has visitors. While they wash off the dust of their journey and rest under a tree, he slaughters a calf and Sarah prepares "a morsel of bread." After the meal, the talk turns first to the promise of a son to Abraham and Sarah, then to the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. Both are fitting subjects, because the guests turn out to be God.

The aging Sarah responds to the promise of a son with laughter. Thereupon,

The LORD said to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh, and say, 'Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?' Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, in the spring, and Sarah shall have a son." But Sarah denied, saying, "I did not laugh"; for she was afraid. He said, "No, but you did laugh." (Gen. 18:13-15)

Sarah's conduct is so much at odds with the traditional picture of the ancient Israelite woman as a self-effacing household slave that the phrase "and Sarah laughed" has become the title for this reexamination of the status of woman in the Old Testament.

Writers on the Old Testament with but few exceptions have stressed the subordination of daughter and wife to father and husband. Earle Bennett Cross wrote:

Throughout most of the history of the Hebrew people, men have been the more prominent sex. The patronymic idea has prevailed. A few exceptions such as Deborah and Queen Athaliah only serve to emphasize the secondary position which was the lot of most of their sex. (1)

Roland de Vaux described the husband as "master" of the wife:

In the normal type of Israelite marriage the husband is the "master," the ba'al of his wife. The father had absolute authority over his children, even over his married sons if they lived with him, and over their wives. In early times this authority included even the power over life and death; thus Judah condemned to death his daughter-in-law Tamar when she was accused of misconduct. (2)

According to Anthony Phillips, a specialist in Biblical law,

only free adult males had legal status in ancient Israel, and so the right to appear before the elders in court. All other persons whether women, children or slaves, were in effect regarded as the personal property of the heads of the household. (3)

There have been dissenting voices. Ismar J. Peritz seems to have demonstrated as long ago as 1898 that the religion of the Old Testament was not exclusively a male activity, (4) a conclusion supported by a recent doctoral dissertation by Clarence Vos.(5) Elizabeth Mary Mac-Donald proved that women throughout the ancient Near East had more rights and a higher status than has often been asserted.(6) Millar Burrows argued convincingly that the bride-purchase hypothesis did not describe correctly the significance of gifts exchanged at the time of marriage.(7) Recently, Phyllis Trible has suggested that it was the intention of the authors of the Old Testament to further "salvation for both women and men," not to promote the patriarchalism of ancient Israelite culture.(8) Other titles continue to appear.(9)

A basic trait of all scientific study is the constant review of conclusions drawn from evidence by a reexamination of that evidence. This work is the result of such a reexamination. It will submit for judgment conclusions substantially different from the majority of scholarly views of the status of the ancient Israelite woman, and it will present the evidence upon which its conclusions are based.

That evidence is taken primarily from the Jewish and Protestant canons of the Old Testament. These are identical in content, although the order of the books differs (as does the versification at times). Books present in the Roman Catholic canon but lacking in the Jewish-Protestant canon and post-canonical Jewish writings may reflect a change in the status of woman. This question is far too complex to be examined here. Within the canon as just defined, the evidence is restricted primarily to those passages which mention a woman. Each passage was studied individually, using the methods of Biblical criticism.(10) A topical outline finally emerged.

Archaeologists have provided a second, extensive body of evidence. In part, the evidence is the housewares and personal belongings used by ancient Israelite women. In part, it is in the form of legal, mythological, and commercial texts from the ancient Near East. These sources will be introduced when they become helpful. They will not be used, however, to establish a pattern of meaning to which the evidence in the Old Testament will be expected to conform.

The Old Testament was written over many centuries. Even if we reject the traditional dates given the books of Scripture, we have to face the possibility that a passage may fall anywhere between about 1200 B.C. (the date often assigned Judg., ch. 5) and 175 B.C. (the date often given much of The Book of Daniel). Thus we are dealing with writings composed across a thousand years. If we reflect on the changes in beliefs, customs, technology, government, and language that have occurred in Great Britain since 1066, the possibility that there were changes in Israelite customs and attitudes over a millennium becomes clear. Ancient civilizations appear to have altered slowly, but a thousand years is too long a time in human history for there to have been no change.

Dating passages is difficult and often controversial. I accept historical criticism, one aspect of Biblical criticism, and the dates it provides, rather than the dates recorded in ancient, extra-Biblical tradition. Historical criticism, however, does not provide a precise date for every passage, nor are historical critics always agreed upon the dates they do assign. Dating here will be primarily a matter of relative chronology. The "before or after" sequence will represent either my understanding of scholarly consensus or the conclusion that seems most likely to me. The conclusions of Otto Eissfeldt will often be accepted.(11) The assignment of dates will often be indicated by nothing more than the order in which passages are discussed. Where a precise date is possible and is relevant, it will be stated.

The author shares the belief that the Bible should be read as a human document. We should bring to bear upon our study of the Bible all the resources we normally use in the study of other human documents. Nonetheless, God is the center of the Old Testament, whether it be taken on its own terms or as part of the canon of a community of faith. We have failed seriously to study the Old Testament if we disregard what it clearly presents as its own center — Israel's statements about its relationships with God. Nor have we addressed ourselves to it as canonical if we have not found Israel's statements to be uniquely authoritative for us.

As the material that has gone into this study accumulated, it became clear that the God-centeredness of the Old Testament, rather than a sociological structure derived from anthropology, provides the means by which the information available becomes an intelligible unity. This is the reason that this study of the status of woman in the Old Testament is also the Old Testament doctrine of woman.

The sheer mass of the Old Testament passages in which women appear is misleading. As numerous as such passages are, their total still is only a small part of the whole of the Old Testament. Three books — Obadiah, Habakkuk, and Haggai— contain no references to women! We must begin this study with the recognition that the male dominates the Old Testament statistically. This will not be documented here, although it obviously is important for the status of woman in the Old Testament that men are mentioned there more often than are women.

The subtitle of this work is "The Status of Woman in the Old Testament." Status is defined as relative standing. The basic groups within which relative standing are defined are the family and the community. These are the fundamental divisions of AND SARAH LAUGHED. Within the family, the status of woman can be defined in relationship to parents (especially the father) and husband, siblings, and children. In the community as a whole, a woman's standing may be described in terms of her relationships to males and to other women. Because of the theocentricity of the Old Testament, the relationship of the woman to God is the final arbiter of her status.


1. Earle Bennett Cross, The Hebrew Family: A Study in Historical Sociology (The University of Chicago Press, 1927), p. 39.

2. Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions, tr. by John McHugh (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Book Co. of Canada, Ltd., 1961), p. 20.

3. Anthony Phillips, "Some Aspects of Family Law in Pre-Exilic Israel," Vetus Testamentum, Vol. XXIII (1973), p. 350.

4. Ismar J. Peritz, "Women in the Ancient Hebrew Cult," Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. XVII (1898), pp. 111-48. Circulated also as a reprint.

5. Clarence J. Vos, Woman in Old Testament Worship (Delft: Verenigde Drukkerijen Judels & Brinkman, n. d.).

6. Elizabeth Mary MacDonald, The Position of Women as Reflected in Semitic Codes of Law (Toronto: The University of Toronto Press, 1931).

7. Millar Burrows, The Basis of Israelite Marriage (American Oriental Society, 1938). Burrows' argument weakens the hypothesis that the father or husband owned the daughter or wife.

8. Phyllis Trible, "Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Inter-pretation," Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. XLI (1973), pp. 30-47.

9. Such as Thomas Edward McComisky, The Status of the Secondary Wife: Its Development in Ancient Near Eastern Law (University Microfilm, 1970); Bernard F. Batto, Studies on Women at Mari (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974); Ilse Seibert, Woman in the Ancient Near East, tr. by Marianne Herzfeld (Leipzig: Edition Leipzig, 1974); and P. A. H. de Boer, Fatherhood and Motherhood in Israelite and Judean Piety (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1974). The two last-named defend the traditional patriarchal interpretation. Seibert is sumptuously illustrated.

10. No single recent book describes all kinds of Biblical criticism. A series of booklets published by Fortress Press is useful: Norman C. Habel, Literary Criticism of the Old Testament (1971); Gene M. Tucker, Form Criticism of the Old Testament (1971); Walter E. Rast, Tradition, History, and the Old Testament (1972); and J. Maxwell Miller, The Old Testament and the Historian (1976). Ralph W. Klein, Textual Criticism of the Old Testament: The Septuagint After Qumran (1973), describes textual criticism.

11. Otto Eissfeldt, The Old Testament: An Introduction, tr. by Peter R. Ackroyd (Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1965).

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