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Sisters, Divorcees, Widows from 'Sarah Laughed' The Status of Woman in the Old Testament, by John H.Otwell

Sisters, Divorcees, Widows

from And Sarah Laughed
The Status of Woman in the Old Testament, pp.113-131.
by John H.Otwell

published by The Westminster Press, 1977


Not every woman in the household was a wife or a daughter. In the story of Tamar, David's daughter, we have an example of an unmarried sister living with her brother (II Sam. 13:20). This suggests that a woman's relationships with her siblings were significant. We also have learned that parents could secure a divorce for daughters (Judg. 15:lf.; I Sam. 25:44). Apparently a divorced woman retained standing in the family into which she had been born. Finally, our references to The Book of Ruth and the discussion of the queen mother have raised the question of the widow. The evidence that describes each condition will be reviewed in this chapter.


The relationship between siblings often was very close. In the prose framework of the poem of Job, Job's seven sons invite one another and their three sisters to feasts in their homes (Job 1:4, 13, 18f.), and Job's brothers and sisters come to visit him after he has been restored to health and prosperity (ch. 42:11). In The Song of Solomon, the bond between brother and sister is a simile for the love of bride and groom (S. of Sol. 4:10-12; 8: If.).

Sexual relations between siblings were sternly prohibited, in spite of the erotic overtones of the passages in The Song of Solomon. The oldest example is Deut. 27: 22: "Cursed be he who lies with his sister, whether the daughter of his father or the daughter of his mother." This was restated twice as a law (Lev. 18:9; 20:17) and extended to cover the relationship between a man and his maternal aunt (Lev. 20:19).

Two stories in the Old Testament report brothers avenging the rape of their sisters. The first of these, the rape of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, by Shechem (Gen., ch. 34), probably is tribal history told as legend since Shechem was a prominent and ancient city-state in Palestine. The story now ends with the slaughter of the men of "the city," and the history behind the legend may have been an Israelite attack on the city of Shechem. The assault is carried out by Simeon and Levi, and Gen. 49: 5-7 also may report the incident.(50) The gist of the tale is that an unmarried woman is raped by a youth who then seeks to marry her. The condition set by the victim's family is the circumcision of all the males of the city. When they have complied,

on the third day, when they [the men of the city] were sore, two of the sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, Dinah's brothers, took their swords and came upon the city unawares, and killed all the males. They slew Hamor and his son Shechem with the sword, and took Dinah out of Shechem's house and went away. (Vs. 25f.)

When Jacob reproached them for their deed, "they said, 'Should he treat our sister as a harlot?' " (v. 31).

It was the full brothers of Dinah, those sharing with her both father and mother, who avenged her; and it also was the full brother, Absalom, who avenged the rape of Tamar by her half brother (II Sam., ch. 13). In a polygamous family, at least in these two stories, the full brother gives the unmarried sister the fullest legal protection possible. This may reflect a legal obligation not reported in the law codes, or it may indicate that the bonds of affection between children of the same mother were particularly strong.

A similar closeness between siblings appears in laws describing a priest's cultic cleanness:

And the LORD said to Moses, "Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them that none of them shall defile himself for the dead among his people, except for his nearest of kin, his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, his brother, or his virgin sister (who is near to him because she has no husband; for her he may defile himself)." (Lev. 21: 1-3; see also Ezek. 44:25)

Contact with a dead body so defiled a priest that he could not mediate between God and people; but the requirement of ritual purity yielded to the more primal demands of family defined as parents, children, brothers, and unmarried sisters. The relationship between brothers and sisters could not have been based on affection because it applied only to unmarried sisters.


We have already had a hint of the status of a divorced woman in the reports of fathers terminating daughters' marriages (Judg. 15:If.; I Sam. 25:44). These passages indicate that divorce was as much a family matter as had been the marriage. The woman continued to share in a corporate identity, thus to have selfhood as a member of a family. The divorce was a reversion from the family within which she might bear children to the family in which she had been a child. Divorce often was a prelude to remarriage, as in both the instances cited here.

The acceptance of divorce by the authors of the Old Testament has received more attention than it deserves, perhaps because of the hostility of the writers of the New Testament to it (see Mark 10:1-12 and Matt. 19:3-9). Not much is said about divorce in the Old Testament. Few instances of it are reported; it is mentioned infrequently in the laws, it was condemned unreservedly once, and it was held in such low esteem that it was used as a simile for Israel's faithlessness to God.

Reports of divorce are rare. In Gen. 21:14 we are told that Abraham sent Hagar away. Although Hagar had become Abraham's concubine, she continued to be Sarah's slave, and this divorce reflected Sarah's right to dismiss one of her own servants. The report of the relationship between Moses and Zipporah in Ex. 18:2-7 is unclear. Moses is said in v. 2 to have "sent her away," a phrase that might be taken to suggest divorce. But the narrative continues: "One told Moses, 'Lo, your father-in-law Jethro is coming to you with your wife and her two sons with her.' " This suggests that Moses had not secured a divorce but rather had entrusted his family to his father-in-law for safekeeping while he undertook a hazardous task.

One report of a divorce in the Old Testament is given us in the form of a prophet acting out the word of the Lord. Hosea married Gomer, daughter of Diblaim, in response to divine command (Hos. l:2f.). She bore three children. Each child's name was an aspect of the word of the Lord being proclaimed by the prophet (ch. 1:4-9). After the birth of the third child, Hosea divorced Gomer for infidelity, equating what he had done with the Lord's repudiation of Israel for its faithlessness to its deity (ch. 2:2-13). Finally, Hosea is commanded to love an unnamed faithless woman just as God loves a faithless people (ch. 3).

The interpretation of Hos., chs. 1 to 3, is difficult. The marriage may have disintegrated when Hosea found that Gomer was participating in the local fertility shrine's rites. This not only would have called the paternity of the children into question, it also would have disrupted the marriage of a husband who advocated a strict Yahwism and a wife who practiced either Baalism or a synthesis of Yahwism and Baalism. Hosea thus may have come to see his marriage with Gomer as paralleling the relationship between God and Israel. God would be as much in the right in making void a covenant with faithless Israel as Hosea was in the right in repudiating a marriage contract with an unfaithful Gomer.

The tragedy, however, seems to have closed on a note of hope. Hosea stood in the strict Yahwist tradition out of which the Deuteronomic school later was to come. The prohibition in Deut. 24:1-4 of remarriage after a wife had married a second husband may explain why Hosea purchased Gomer (if the unnamed woman in Hos. 3:1 be Gomer). Holding her as a slave wife is not explicitly prohibited in Deut. 24:1-4. The purchase of Gomer is explained as an act of love greater than the wrong which earlier had led to the divorce.(51)

This reconstruction of the events behind Hos., chs. 1 to 3, yields several conclusions. Hosea 2:2 gives Gomer's adultery as the cause of the divorce. The use of divorce as a simile for the breakdown of the covenant between God and Israel (to which we will refer later) indicates that a wife's adultery was a widely acknowledged justification for terminating marriage. Hosea's statement,

She is not my wife,
and I am not her husband
(Hos. 2:2)

is sometimes described as the legal declaration of divorce,52 although there is no evidence to support the conclusion outside this verse. Verse 4, "Upon her children also I will have no pity, because they are children of harlotry," may indicate that the children of a marriage dissolved because of the wife's infidelity could be repudiated by the husband.

There seems to have been sufficient similarity in Ho-sea's mind between the marriage bond and the covenant between God and Israel for the former to be an illustration of the latter. This will be amply confirmed from other passages later. It is easy to conclude from surveys of marriage in the Old Testament that its dissolution could be secured by the husband for almost any reason, however trivial.(53) It is difficult to see how this could be correct, however, if the covenant between husband and wife were held to be similar in any significant way to the covenant between God and Israel.

Finally, the only reason we are given for the reestab-lishment of Hosea's marriage is that he is to buy "a woman who is beloved of a paramour and is an adulteress; even as the LORD loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love cakes of raisins" (Hos. 3:1). Hosea, ch. 3, seems best understood as an extension of the parallel in Hos. 2:2-13 between the marriage and the covenant between God and people, and the motive for restoring the nation's covenant attributed to the Lord is thus to be extended to Hosea's reason for reestablishing the marriage. In both instances, the motive was love. If this seems too modern a reason, our concept of ancient Israelite marriage may be at fault. The second marriage was concubinage for Gomer. She became her husband's slave. Yet this was the means by which love between man and woman circumvented a law intended to discourage remarriage after divorce.

Ezra 10:2-44 reports a mass divorce. The setting is the establishment of a theocracy under Ezra, one feature of which was the repudiation of marriages with non-Israelite women. They are pictured in the Old Testament as a source of the intrusion of alien elements into Israel's worship (as in I Kings 11:1-8). When it was learned that many had married outside their faith, Shecaniah ben Jehiel recommended that all foreign wives be divorced (Ezra 10:1-5). Since it was raining heavily, it was decided to take a census at a more convenient time to identify those who had married alien women. When the task was done, all who had so acted were named. "All these had married foreign women, and they put them away with their children" (v. 44). This was one of the means by which post-exilic Jews sought to preserve their identity and uniqueness in the midst of an alien environment. Thus the event tells us little about the status of the ancient Israelite woman or of her later Jewish descendant.

The grounds for divorce in ancient Israel are unclear. Hosea's action against Gomer was taken because of her sexual faithlessness (Hos. 2:2). This reason is cited elsewhere in the prophetic literature when divorce initiated by the husband becomes a simile for the Lord's action against a faithless Israel (i.e., Jer. 3:6-10, 19f.; Ezek. 16: 1-63) (54) No instance of a wife repudiating a husband is reported. As we have seen, the wife's father could terminate a daughter's marriage. In the case of David and Michal, Saul may have acted when David became an outlaw (I Sam. 25:44)(55)

No legal prescriptions dealing with divorce in the abstract have survived. This is what we should expect. Case law, which makes up the bulk of the laws recorded in the Testament, deals with specific instances. One such judicial decision, however, was stated in a way which seems at first to give the grounds for divorce:

When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a bill of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man's wife, and the latter husband dislikes her and writes her a bill of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the LORD, and you shall not bring guilt upon the land which the LORD your God gives you for an inheritance. (Deut. 24:1-4)

The statement that the husband has "found some indecency" in the wife, or that he "dislikes" her, has been taken either to justify divorce on virtually any grounds or as being too vague to be helpful to us. The latter position has been taken by both G. Ernest Wright and Gerhard von Rad. Wright observed that the law seems to permit divorce "only for good cause."(56) Gerhard von Rad wrote:

The meaning of "indecent," "objectionable" (cf. 23:14) must have been clear in the time of Deuteronomy; otherwise the matter would certainly have been defined more exactly. By Jesus' time it was being debated in the rabbinical schools whether in such cases a lapse on the part of the woman is in mind or whether she possessed some repellent quality.(57)

It is best to leave the matter in these vague and admittedly unsatisfactory terms. To infer more is to read more into the passage than our knowledge justifies.

Even though no instance of a wife securing a divorce is reported in the Old Testament, the grounds for such an action can be deduced from Ex. 21:7-11. Only vs. l0f. need to be reported here:

If he [the husband] takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights. And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.

This law describes the safeguards protecting an Israelite concubine. Among them is her right to divorce her husband and to gain her freedom without payment if the husband denies support and sexual access to her after taking a second wife. As Mace observed, "If this were true of a mere concubine, one would expect it to hold good a fortiori in the case of a wife, who would have her family to take her part."(58) Thus, contrary to the belief that the Israelite husband alone had the right to secure a divorce, the evidence indicates that both husband and wife had such a right. The grounds on which the husband might divorce a wife included her adultery but otherwise are vaguely defined. By contrast, the grounds for the wife's actions are precisely defined: nonsupport and the denial of sexual access. In effect, the wife could secure a divorce if her husband denied to her the means to be a mother and the wherewithal to support herself and her child.

New Testament opposition to divorce is foreshadowed in the Old Testament. The bulk of the legal prescriptions dealing with it limit it. One law prohibited remarriage after the wife had been wedded to a second husband (Deut. 24:1-4). To this must be added prohibitions of the divorce of a wife falsely accused of the premarital loss of her virginity (Deut. 22:13-19) and of a ravished, unbetrothed virgin (Deut. 22:28f.). The law requiring the freeing of a slave wife at the time of divorce also discouraged divorce by exacting a property loss (the freeing of a slave) on the owner-husband (Deut. 21:14).

All these limitations appear in the Deuteronomic Code. The use of divorce as a simile for the punishment of Israel by God appears also at this time (as in passages reported earlier here in which Jeremiah and Ezekiel liken Israel to an adulterous wife). Equating divorce with the horror of divine judgment in the collapse and defeat of the nation must have done little to commend it!

Malachi, writing in the century following the exile, opposed divorce as explicitly and as strongly as did the author of Mark 10:2-12:

And this again you do. You cover the LORD'S altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor at your hand. You ask, "Why does he not?" Because the LORD was witness to the covenant between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Has not the one God made and sustained for us the spirit of life? And what does he desire? Godly offspring. So take heed to yourselves, and let none be faithless to the wife of his youth. "For I hate divorce, says the LORD the God of Israel, and covering one's garment with violence, says the LORD of hosts. So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless." (Mal. 2:13-16)

These words are the maturation of implications present from the earliest sources. God is the source of the life that is given to a man and a woman covenanted together before the Lord. Any act that violates the covenant to which God has become a witness, and thus defiles the gift of life which God then confers, flouts the sovereignty and work of God. Divorce thus has become as grave an offense against the will of the Lord to create life as is oppression which destroys the life that has been created.

Three motifs emerge in a review of the evidence in the Old Testament dealing with divorce. The first is that both marriage and divorce are a family rather than an individual matter. The wife's family continued to be able to represent her rights, and she could return to it if repudiated by her husband. The second is that husband and wife may have been more nearly equal in their access to divorce than has been supposed. The grounds upon which the wife might secure divorce (and freedom, if she were a concubine) were more clearly stated than were the grounds upon which the husband might take action. Finally, the material on divorce provides us with a clear and strong statement of the purpose of marriage. Since marriage was to give God the opportunity to give new life, we can rightly infer a high standing for the woman in whose womb that new life came into being.


The widow is another category in which the status of woman is disclosed. The word for widow in Biblical Hebrew is 'almanah. It is a feminine noun derived from the verb 'lm, "to bind," "to be silent" (in the intensive mode). The English word "widow" designates any woman who has not remarried after the death of her husband. Chayim Cohen, however, defines the 'almanah as often being a "once-married woman who no longer had any means of financial support."(59) Even this definition may prove to be too broad in the light of the information given us in passages in the Old Testament in which a widow is described.

A childless woman who has not remarried after the death of her husband is called a widow in several Old Testament passages. In a few instances we are informed that she was able to return to her father's household. Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah, was told to "remain a widow in your father's house" until Judah's third son had become old enough to become her husband (Gen. 38:11); and a priest's bereaved and childless daughter could return home and share the sanctified food which only the priest and his family could eat (Lev. 22:13). This example is all the more important for being in a law code. Even though case law arose out of a single judicial decision solving a specific case, the decision became a law when the situation with which it dealt arose fairly often. Thereupon it became a description of a category of situation rather than an individual case.

In other statements about a widow, however, she often was a woman not only bereft of husband but also lacking the support of any other adult male. This had two consequences: she had to be self-supporting, and she had lost the normal means of recourse to legal process.

One of the legends told about Elijah reported him as commanded by God to stay with a widow in Zarephthah during a drought. When he arrived and asked for something to eat, "she said, 'As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a cruse; and now, I am gathering a couple of sticks, that I may go in and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die' " (I Kings 17:12). In a similar story told about Elisha, the widow is described as being forced to surrender her children to a creditor (II Kings 4:1). In both of these passages, the bereaved woman is described as responsible for the support of minor children and unable to provide it.

II Samuel 14:1-24 describes one of the means by which a courtier might influence a king. The king is David. The courtier is Joab, the commander in chief of David's armies. Absalom, the oldest living son of David, had been banished after he had ordered Amnon, an older half brother, killed because Amnon had raped Tamar, Absalom's sister (II Sam., ch. 13). When Joab saw that David was obsessed with the situation, he sought to nudge the king into action by having a woman present a fictional case to David for judgment. The woman begins, "Alas, I am a widow; my husband is dead" (v. 5). She had two sons, one of whom killed the other in a quarrel. Her relatives now want to execute the remaining son in retribution for the killing of the brother. The woman then appeals to David because the death of the remaining son "would quench my coal which is left, and leave to my husband neither name nor remnant upon the face of the earth" (v. 7). In this instance, it seems proper to define the widow as a woman who has no recourse to judicial processes other than through appeal to the king, because the men who would normally defend her rights, the members of the extended family of which she was a part, are the ones who seek to execute her remaining son. Thus her sons' accusers are those who would normally be her defenders.

In the light of these passages, it may be no accident that none of the bereaved women in The Book of Ruth are designated as widows. Naomi, who had lost husband and sons, returns to her husband's village because she is represented as having some claim on his kinsmen; and Ruth, the daughter-in-law of Naomi's husband, becomes the agent through whom the claim is realized. Similarly, Bathsheba is not described as a widow after David's death, possibly because she had then become the immensely powerful queen mother.

The evidence thus seems to suggest that the derivation of 'almanah from 'lm, "to be silent," should be taken seriously. A widow was a silent one, a person often denied participation in the economic and legal life of the community because she lacked identification with a family. If this definition be correct, her plight was extremely serious. She had so little standing in the community that she was regularly grouped with the resident alien, the person who was present physically but did not belong to the group (as in Deut. 14:29; Ps. 94:6; etc.). In a society in which selfhood was defined corporately, she had lost selfhood.

Confirmation for this interpretation appears in two kinds of passages: those dealing with the legal status of widows, orphans, and aliens, and those in which an Israel cut off from its God is likened to a widow.

Exodus 22:21-24 is typical of the first group of passages:

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you do afflict them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry; and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.

Since the Old Testament describes the Israelites when in Egypt as slaves (as in Ex. 5:15f.; Deut. 5:15; etc.), we can easily deduce the true standing of the sojourner, widow, and orphan.

The widow sometimes played a prominent and grim role in oracles in which Israel is described as under a judgment caused by its alienation from God:

You have rejected me, says the LORD,
you keep going backward;
so I have stretched out my hand against you and destroyed you;—
I am weary of relenting.
I have winnowed them with a winnowing fork
in the gates of the land;
I have bereaved them, I have destroyed my people;
they did not turn from their ways.
I have made their widows more in number
than the sand of the seas;
I have brought against the mothers of young men
a destroyer at noonday;
I have made anguish and terror
fall upon them suddenly.
(Jer. 15:6-8; see also ch. 18:21; Lam. 5:1-3)

Jeremiah turned here to the plight of the widow when seeking a simile to convey the enormity of the disaster that divine judgment would bring.

Even though the widow seems to have had no status in ancient Israel, she does have status in the Old Testament. The ancient Israelite definition of selfhood and its organization of society had no place for the resident alien, widow, or orphan. The Old Testament, a literature emerging out of the life of a community of faith, explicitly and repeatedly places the welfare of these three groups of outcasts under the care of God. We have already noted Ex. 22:21-24 and Deut. 27:19, verses in which this is stated. Deut. 10:17f. is another such passage:

For the LORD your God is God of gods, and LORD of lords, the great, the mighty, and the terrible God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.

Giving the widow identity and status under God is not a platitude in the Old Testament. The passage just quoted continues: "Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt" (v. 19). Although the authors of the Old Testament were consistent and clear in their assertions that the Lord gave the widow what society denied her, they also stated repeatedly that the faithful Israelite was commanded by God to protect the widow. This is stated both negatively and positively.

Stated negatively, the Lord's concern for the widow not only yielded the curse on the person "who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow" (Deut. 27:19), it was expressed also in a series of prophetic oracles of woe. This is familiar to us in passages in the major prophets such as Isa. 10: 1f. and Ezek. 22:6f. But it also was a motif in lesser-known, post-exilic prophets:

Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts. (Mal. 3:5)

These passages report a continuous and consistent tradition covering a period of from approximately 740 to 450 B.C. in which prophetic mediators between God and people transmitted as a word from the Lord a condemnation of the people for their exploitation of the sojourner, orphan, and widow. These are not isolated statements, and their theme appears as often in positive injunctions as in condemnations. Thus Jeremiah Was entrusted with a word of restoration should the people cleanse their lives:

For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers for ever. (Jer. 7:5-7)

Isaiah earlier (Isa. 1:17) and Zechariah later (Zech. 7:9f.) joined with Jeremiah in this "word from the LORD."

This is highly specific. This word of the Lord exhorted the righteous to take upon themselves the responsibility for becoming the legal voice for the "silent ones," to take their part in a court of law just as a close kinsman would have done had there been one. The Deuteronomic legislators became even more explicit in describing a specific kind of injustice: "You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow's garment in pledge" (Deut. 24:17). From this law we gain an unwelcome insight into the grimness of the extremity a widow deprived of family support might face. These same legislators also stated the right of the defenseless to glean a once-harvested crop:

When you reap your harvest in your field, and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow; that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not glean it afterward; it shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this. (Deut. 24:19-22)

Ruth and Naomi seem to have used this right to call their plight to the attention of distant relatives after they had returned to Naomi's village (Ruth 2:lf., 18).

Finally, the care of the Lord for those lacking the support of a family was expressed in the law governing the use of the tithe:

At the end of every three years you shall bring forth all the tithe of your produce in the same year, and lay it up within your towns; and the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled; that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do. (Deut. 14:28f.; see ch. 26:12-15)

The magnitude of God's care for widows is revealed nowhere more clearly than here. The Levites were a landless tribe which had become professional servants of the Their livelihood came to them through their share of tithes and sacrifices given to God by the faithful. Yet they were here required to share their access to gifts given God with widows, orphans, and sojourners.

We have already indicated that the three groups often named together — the resident alien, the widow, and the orphan — were in the same situation in the community. All three lacked participation in an Israelite family that could provide economic and legal security. These three groups represented, in Israelite antiquity, the dispossessed in much the same way that a refugee without resources does today. Desperate though the plight of the widow must have been to have been grouped with the sojourner and orphan, her presence there provides two insights into her status.

The first is to be deduced from the obvious fact that sojourners and orphans would include both females and males. The trilogy of sojourner, widow, and orphan were equal in their misfortunes regardless of their sex. A male sojourner had no advantage over the Israelite widow without family. As we have seen before in this study, an equality of the sexes emerges far more often in a careful study of the status of woman in the Old Testament than we had been led to expect.

But that same equality between the sexes is present in the consistent, centuries-long proclamation of the word of the Lord. The God of Israel is the self-proclaimed kinsman of both the male sojourner and the widow. It was circumstance that mattered, not gender.

It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that the widow represents the gravest extremity in which the ancient Israelite woman might find herself. The derivation of the word for "widow," 'almanah, suggests that a widow was likely to be a woman who found herself deprived of family identity through the death of her mate. She was less than a person because she had been deprived of the context (a family) in which selfhood was known. She occupies this tragic place along with orphans, male and female, for whom no family provided identity, and the resident alien whose family lived in another land.

Yet she had status even in extremity. At the very least, she was equal to all others, male and female, in a like situation. Far more to the point, however, she was of such importance to the God who had created Israel to be a people of the Lord that God became her next of kin in order to provide security for her through the actions of those among the people who heeded God's will. Her lot was desperate, but her standing was as high as that of the Levites, the servants of God.


This chapter has reviewed materials essential for any well-rounded picture of woman in ancient Israelite society. The information provided us confirms essentially the estimate of the status of woman deduced from a review of their place as daughters and wives with a single, but significant, exception: the standing of the widow in the community of the faithful as one whose kinsman was God. The role of the go'el, the kinsman charged with defending the rights of another, was so important and elevated in ancient Israel that the Second Isaiah described the Lord as Israel's go'el, during the bleak years of the exile (Isa. 41:14; 43:14; 44:6; etc.), knowing that his words would give his people a sense of their worth. For centuries, the prophets of the Old Testament proclaimed the Lord to be the go'el of the sojourner, the widow, and the orphan.


50. The presence of historical memories behind the story is widely recognized. Hermann Gunkel, Genesis uber-setzt und erklart(Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1901), p. 337, calls it a historical saga telling of an incident involving the city of Shechem and three Israelite tribes, Dinah, Simeon, and Levi. The first merged with Shechem; the second and third attacked Shechem but were defeated by a coalition of Canaanites. For variations (at times major) on this, see Von Rad, Genesis, pp. 329f., and Speiser, Genesis, pp. 266f.

51. See James Luther Mays, Hosea, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (The Westminster Press, 1969), pp. 22-24. See pp. 24-60 for a review of various interpretations of Hos., chs. 1 to 3.

52. So Phillips, op. cit., p. 352; de Vaux, op. cit., p. 35.

53. As in W. P. Patterson, "Marriage," in James Hastings et al. (eds.) A Dictionary of the Bible (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1906), Vol. III, p. 274c. Paterson argued that the primitive freedom of the husband was later restricted by prophetic protest and the legislation derived from the protest. Phillips, op. cit., p. 355, argues that Deut. 24:1 gave the husband virtually unrestricted rights of divorce. This legislation, at least in its present form, is usually dated about 650 B.C.

54. It needs also to be added that a husband's sexual faithlessness is described by the prophets as faithlessness to God. See Hos. 4:12-14; Jer. 5:7-9; Ezek. 18:10-13 as examples.

55. Although de Vaux, op. cit., p. 35, reports that women in the Jewish colony at Elephantine could divorce their husbands (fifth to sixth centuries B.C.) and that an instance is reported from Judah in the second century A.D.

56. G. Ernest Wright, "The Book of Deuteronomy: Introduction and Exegesis," in G. A. Buttrick et al. (eds.), The Interpreter's Bible (Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1953), Vol. II, pp. 473f.

57. Gerhard von Rad, Deuteronomy, A Commentary, tr. by Dorothea Barton, The Old Testament Library (The Westminster Press, 1966), p. 150.

58. Mace, op. cit., p. 258. The Code of Hammurabi, sec. 142, explicitly gave a wife the right to divorce her husband "if she has kept herself chaste and has no fault, while her husband is given to going about" (Driver and Miles, op. cit., p. 57).

59. Chayim Cohen, "Widow," in Cecil Roth and Geoffrey Wigoder (eds.), Encyclopedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Kefer Publishing House, 1971), Vol. XVI, p. 487.

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