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Male Dominance in the Old Testament

Male Dominance in the Old Testament

1. Jewish society had developed its own social myth of male predominance. This social myth was quite naturally incorporated in Sacred Scripture. Just as the “flat earth” theory was part and parcel of the creation accounts without implying a divine approval of such a theory, so the social organization imprinted itself on various religious texts without falling under the scope of its teaching.

2. Both in the Old Testament and New Testament times the Jews were a male dominant society. All relationships in the family centred round the father (the patriarch).

  • He could divorce his wives as he liked (Gen 16, 1-6; Dt 24, 1-4; Mt 19, 3-9).
  • He decided on the future of his children and had absolute authority over them (Gen 43, 1-15; 2 Sam 13, 23-27; Mt 21, 28-31).
  • He was in every sense the head of the family (Ps 127, 3-5; 128, 1-6; etc.).
  • It was the man who received the family property (see the exception of the daughters of Zelophehad, Num 27, 1-11; 36, 1-12).
  • It was the man who as sole owner of the family property could distribute it to his sons (Dt 21, 15-17; Lk 15, 11-32).
  • Male predominance also found its expression in the Hebrew language. “Ishâh” (woman) was derived from “ish” man (Gen 2, 23).

3. As in other societies, we find also with the Jews a strong cultural myth designed to underline man’s central position. The workings of this myth can be demonstrated from the endless elaborations in extra-biblical Jewish thinking. The inferiority of woman is brought out by making Adam’s creation a glorious success, while God’s various attempts at making woman are presented as a series of failures.

  • “Eve herself seemed like an ape when compared with Adam, whose heel—let alone his face—outshone the sun:” (B. Baba Bathra 58a; Lev. Rab. 20.2).
  • God created Lilith (woman) but for her he used filth and mud instead of pure dust (Yalqut Reubeni ad. Gen. II. 21; IV. 8).
  • Litith refused to lie beneath Adam and eventually became the mother of many demons (Num. Rab. 16.25).
  • The act of love is an evil thing which Adam and Eve only learned from Samael, the devil, after they had been thrown out of paradise (Sefer Adam 64-67 p.35.

R. GRAVES and R. PATI. Hebrew Myths, London,Cassell 1964, pgs, 65 69: 89-90.

4. We need not be surprised that the social myth of male predominance affected the following aspects of Sacred Scripture:

(a) The representation of the divinity. The world of the gods represented in man’s imagination, is one of the ways in which social myth is reinforced. For this reason it is only natural that Yahweh was spoken of as if he were a man and that Christ could not have been understood as an incarnation of God, unless he was a man.

(b) Sacramental Liturgy. The rules restricting the priestly ministry to men in the Old Testament (Lev 8), allowing women access on1y to part of the temple and attaching ritual uncleanliness to childbirth (Lev 12, 1-8: 15, 19-24), are illustrations of a liturgical expression given to the social myth. Traces of this can still be seen in early Christian uneasiness about full participation of women in the liturgical assembly (1 Cor 11, 2-16; 14,33).

(c) Family ethics. The duties of the father of a family towards his wife (Sir 9, 1-9; 36, 21-27) or towards his children (Sir 7, 22-26; 22, 3-6; 42, 9-11), of a wife towards her husband (Sir 25, 13-26; 26, 1-18) and of children towards their parents (Sir 3, 1-16; 7, 27-28; 25, 3-6) are all explicitations of the social structure enshrined in the myth.

The early Christian family code still reflects the same social values when it describes the role of husbands (1 Pet 3, 7; Col 3, 19, Eph 5, 25-26), wives (1 Pet 3, 1-6; Col 3, 18; Eph 5. 22-23; 1 Tim 2, 9-15) and children (Col 3, 20; Eph 6, 1-3).

(d) Religious symbolism. The image of the marnage between Yahweh and Israel belongs to this sphere (Hos 3, 1-5; etc.). Idolatry is compared to fornication and adultery (Ez 16, 15-43; etc.). God speaks also as a father punishing his children (Is 1, 2-6; 43, 5-7; etc.)

The all pervasiveness of this pattern of values is due to the fundamental role played by the social “myth” in constructing society from within.

5. From a Scriptural point of view it is important that we recognize this social aspect so that we may carefully distinguish it from the revealed message. God’s Word to humankind had of necessity to be couched in human language and to be understood in the cultural thought pattern of the people who received the message. It would be a fatal theological blunder to confuse the human medium of expression with the divine message itself.

Read also: John H.Otwell, And Sarah Laughed. The Status of Woman in the Old Testament, 1977

John Wijngaards

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

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