Gender and the Nature of the Divine:
The Biblical View
From The Female Experience and the Nature of The
by Judith Ochshorn Published by theIndiana University Press
and reproduced here with the usual permissions
In estimating the importance attached to gender in biblical literature, it is, of course, necessary to distinguish between the Old Testament and the New and to examine them as discrete documents, bound as they are by their focus on a single deity, whose presence and activity is central to the vision of both, and by the many references in the New Testament back to the Old. Just as the mythic portrayals of goddesses and gods shifted somewhat over time, so biblical conceptions of the nature of the divine and their relation to the issue of gender naturally evolved and changed over the millennium and more during which the canon was finally formulated and set in place. Never- theless, despite the many differences between the two testaments, there are some large similarities as well.
The Biblical and Polytheistic Outlooks: Some Similarities
It is by now a commonplace of much biblical scholarship that the early roots of monotheism may be located not only in the life experiences and social needs of its proponents, and in the influence of prevailing customs and ideologies, but also deep in the outlook and practices of the polytheistic religions in its environment, even as they were appro- priated, altered, or rejected by biblical authors. To cite but a few random instances by way of illustration, some have maintained that Yahweh was likely a Canaanite fertility deity before he was taken over and transformed by the early Hebrews, or that Aaron was conforming to customary practice when he fashioned a graven image of the divine while Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments.
Others have pointed to the impact of surrounding cultures, as when the reformer-king Josiah expelled vestiges of idolatrous worship from the temple, or when Yahweh is represented as demanding a real human sacrifice from Abraham as a test of his faith. And still others have observed that there was a monotheistic pharaoh, Ikhnaton, who ruled Egypt within the early period of biblical evolution, and that the Greek philosophical orientation, which came to perceive reality in terms of a matter-spirit dualism, was to have a profound effect on the thought of early Christians.
Beyond these specific influences and parallelismsand there are manyis a more general congruence. As was evident in most Near Eastern polytheistic cultures, the monotheistic world view encompassed a belief in the interpenetration of the divine and the secular in everyday life, in which divinity was seen as immanent and interventionist in both nature and human history, and in which some individuals had access to the divine.
Like polytheistic texts, biblical literature is infused with trust in the efficacy of omens, prophecies, magic. Like Egyptian ideas about the afterlife or those of first-millennium mystery cults, biblical writings raise the possibility of personal salvation based on individual righteousness or communal observances of appropriate rituals. Like some of the deities of polytheism, the intentions of Yahweh are not always comprehensible to his worshipers. Above all, despite the more graphically anthropomorphic depictions of goddesses and gods in polytheism, both the latter and monotheism conceived of divinity as overwhelmingly powerful, and of humans as correspondingly vulnerable to divine edicts and dispensations. In short, as recounted in the Bible, the universe of both the early Hebrews and Christians, like that of polytheistic societies, was essentially religious in nature.
The Biblical View of the Divine
However, unlike the polytheistic beliefs in the indwelling of divinity in nature, the assignment of sexual identity to the various elements of the natural world, and the consequent view of the proper functioning of nature as closely affiliated with the survival and prosperity of society, the biblical view of the divine is that God is more than only immanent in nature; he creates nature just as he creates people, and he is immortal, while nature itself may change or die (Ps. 102:25-27). After his creation of nature and humans, he is seen as both immanent and transcendent. God rather than nature is divine, and while he might address his selected prophets in specific physical places, no one part of nature is rendered uniquely divine by his presence. Indeed, until the time of the monarchy, altars and sanctuaries were erected in his honor in many places, consonant with the existence of a nomadic people, and there were no geographically fixed sites of cultic worship that excluded others.
This modification in the view of divine immanence and transcendence was one important link in a chain of differences that was to set monotheism apart from the religions in its environment and ultimately was to yield a set of radically different attitudes toward the importance of gender. Since the god of monotheism was not geographically localized, immanent, or interventionist only in particular parts of nature or in specific aspects of human existence, his power came to be seen by his followers as virtually universal.
Thus, unlike goddesses and gods whose scope of power was limited by their particular attributes, Yahweh came to be worshiped as the sole creator and sustainer of life, the source of fertility, social order, wisdom, and justice, the champion of his adherents in battle, and the supreme judge in this life and the next. This different conception of the residence and breadth of divine power in a single deity had the effect of enormously enhancing the significance of his every action and judgment, including those which pertained to sexuality and appropriate sex roles in the secular community, all of which were then made applicable to believers and nonbelievers alike.
Yahweh was above all conceived of as ineffable. Possessing many names and therefore no name, he is nominally nonsexual, nonfamilial, and thus neither the parent nor the offspring of other deities. Moreover, though competing religious beliefs and divinities are mentioned in both testaments (usually in association with idolatry), God is not usually shown as interacting directly with them but, instead, interacts with his special prophets and the human community. If humans follow the teachings of other gods, they are threatened with divine punishment. Hence, while in polytheistic religions the characteristics of the divine become apparent through the many relationships of goddesses and gods with one another as well as with people, the attributes of Yahweh emerge solely from the nature of divine-human encounters. Consequently, the nature of the human community and its kind of involvement with the divine assume far greater prominence in monotheism than in polytheism.
Female Metaphors for God
Biblical descriptions of the content of divine-human interactions (and sometimes the signal importance of the patriarchs and male prophets in the Old Testament and Jesus and his male apostles in the New) all have led many theologians and laypersons alike to personify and think of God, though he is by definition ineffable, as nevertheless also male. He is portrayed as issuing commands, warnings, and instructions to the human community on matters of central ethical or ritual concern, and he does so far more frequently through specially chosen men than through women. These more numerous, more significant interactions with men are mirrored in the numerous designations of God as masculine in the Bible (and in later commentaries, prayers, and hymns as well)e.g., in the recurrent use of words like "He," "His," "Him," "Lord," "King," and the like.
Countering this view of God's "sex" established by the use of typically masculine God-language, Phyllis Trible has uncovered the presence of "gynomorphic" imagery in Old Testament descriptions of the ways in which the divine interacts with the human community, or female metaphors for God. While acknowledging the more common usage of "andromorphic" language, she concentrates on the use of womb and breast imagery as metaphoric symbols of divine compassion, mercy, nurturance, and grace. Citing such imagery in a number of passages, Trible claims that the allusion by uterine analogy to God as mother, nurse, and midwife in some accounts of Yahweh's relations with Israel tends to subvert the more usual perception of God as a male deity.
In addition, she contends that the use of female as well as male imagery in reference to God's transactions with people was distorted in early and subsequent translations from the Hebrew. The translators assigned more sexually restrictive, or only masculine, traits to Yahweh, e.g., in Deut. 32:18, whereas the original Hebrew was more sexually inclusive in its meaning. The last suggests an initial monotheistic view of divinity as God the Mother along with God the Father, both of which, according to Trible, were finally abandoned in favor of a more transcendent and less limiting, or asexual, conception of the divine.(1)
Certainly the use in some of the early monotheistic texts of more sexually inclusive language, which refers to either the female or male attributes of Yahweh, is very significant as rediscovered history. However, contrary to Trible's implied conclusion, namely that there were no negative connotations in the shift to the later view, which ascribed asexuality and transcendence to Yahweh or saw divinity as transcending the limitations of sexual attributes, the latter might very well have contributed to the development of an essential ambivalence toward femaleness, threaded through the content and imagery of many of the narratives in both testaments.
God As Transcendent and Asexual
The depiction of God in his more transcendent and asexual character lies at the center of some of the most cultically crucial biblical passages, and it was this aspect of the divine which was to become dominant in the Western tradition. But even as God came to be seen as overarchingly ineffable, the portrayal of how this deity sometimes interacted with the secular community in specifically sex-related ways established monotheistic attitudes toward the importance of gender as novel and quite different from those of polytheism.
For example, while a more complete discussion of the Old Testament story of creation as it relates to sexual identity, moral capacities, and power must be reserved for later, a comparison of the general polytheistic and monotheistic attitudes toward that event may indicate a few of the implications of the view of God as asexual and transcen- dent. As remarked earlier, polytheistic religions often envisioned the creation and organization of the universe as a process and product of sexual unions between goddesses and gods, even when the primary divine source of life was presented as female, as in the instance of the Sumerian Nammu, or male, as in the case of the Egyptian Ptah. As noted, some creator-deities were apparently thought of as bisexual. All of this reflected the slight emphasis placed on the importance of divine gender, as well as the polytheistic view that there was no natural division or conflict between body and spirit. The divine was celebrated as actively sexual, and the fruits of sexuality in either the divine or the secular sphere frequently were seen as good for the whole of society.
By way of contrast, in the Old Testament (Gen. 11-3) the importance of the act and agent of creation is considerably magnified. As a universal deity seen as the source and arbiter of everything in life and death, Yahweh does not perform the act of creation by identifying himself with any physical elements in nature, e.g., the earth or sea, but rather almost at once creates all inanimate and animate matter. Thus existence itself dates from the time of his first creative acts.
The god of monotheism creates by his words rather than his body, and there is no subsequent involvement in that process of any other divinities of either sex. Further, the supreme power of the divine will and words in the creation of the universe sets up an implicit and, considering its source, perhaps eternal dichotomy between the physical and the spiritual.
Both sexuality and bodily reproduction (the latter in this world visibly restricted to women) are rendered as correspondingly less important than the type of activity engaged in by God, indeed almost counter to the divine. Both are placed forever in a more limited, earthly sphere, producing none of the grand results of material abundance or stability for the secular community provided, for instance, by the Sacred Marriage, the issue of which rested on a view of the beneficence of female sexuality. Interestingly, and even ironically, God blesses his human creations and enjoins the man and woman to "be fruitful and multiply," but it is within the larger context of his creation and provision of the means for re-creation of every kind of life, in order to fulfill his divine purpose (Gen. 1:27-31).
In God's asexual creation of every living thing, in the face of all human experience to the contrary, the female involvement is conspicuously absent. From the perspective of human understanding, that which remains as the source of life can, by analogy, only be called male. And from God's vantage, the successive stages of creation demonstrate his power and transcendence and are seen as good. Moreover, he endows the man with the power to name every living creature, including his wife (Gen. 2:19-20, 23; 3:20). This act was extremely significant because of the prevailing Near Eastern belief in the almost magical potency of names associated with the divine, and because of the enhanced importance attached to words as the means of divine creation. Reinforcing the masculine imagery, then, the primary act of the creation of every living thing by the word of God is replicated in the secondary act of their verbal identification by the first man.
The Moral Universe of Yahweh
It is, perhaps, in the representation of Yahweh as the origin of universal moral laws, and in biblical reactions to the relation between "official" and "popular" religion, that examples of the most cogent evidence for the new significance accorded to gender may be found. Some of the biblical narratives dealing with both of these areas picture God as responding and judging differently on the basis of sex alone, and in this respect the monotheistic mentality is most sharply marked as radically different from that of Near Eastern polytheistic religions.
In contrast with polytheistic representations of the divine, the conception of Yahweh as immanent in a less localized way, as more universal in his power, and as at once immanent and transcendent, had as its corollary the requirement that his worshipers offer more than merely ritualistic propitiation, sacrifices, and liturgical services. For example, as late as the middle of the first millennium, the reformers and prophets of the exilic and post-exilic periods, for all their passion, were not religious innovators but, for the most part, were exhorting the Hebrews to return to their ancient traditions. And central to this "return" was an insistence that mere participation in traditional forms of worship, unaccompanied by a wholehearted commitment in daily life to divine moral commands, was not only reprehensible in the sight of God but would elicit divine retribution (Jer. 7:1-15).
In lieu of the specific powers possessed by goddesses and gods in polytheistic pantheons, the one deity of the Bible was seen as possessing more general attributes, which, of course, were unshared. While Yahweh does not always conform to these attributes and also acts out of seemingly "human" motivese.g., anger, jealousy, capricehe is most frequently portrayed as a god of righteousness, compassion, justice, and, to a lesser extent, omnipotence and omniscience.(2) Even evil becomes an instrument of divine will and retribution. But all these divine qualities operate within the bounds of what was then perceived as God's overriding concern with moral issues, a preoccupation vastly expanded from the expression of polytheistic concerns for righteous behavior. While it was not always the case, it appears that those polytheistic concerns could sometimes be satisfied by merely verbal or ritualistic professions of virtue, as in the Egyptian Negative Confession of sins.
Gender and the Divine Covenant
As different from divine-human relationships in official polytheistic religions, in which the king or ruler was either considered divine or was seen as embodying the prosperity or misfortune of the human community in his own person, through his own personal standing with goddesses and gods, Yahweh is described as making a convenant with the people of Israel, independent of its existence as a political state or its particular geographic location. While women are undoubtedly included among the people of Israel, this covenant was periodically initiated and renewed by God with men like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who then most often, though not always, relayed its terms to the community. Thus it was the male leaders, prophets, and reformers who most frequently transmitted the divine laws and commandments that people had to morally choose to obey in order to benefit from the fulfillment of the divine promise or to escape divine wrath. Indeed, the concept of a divine-human convenant was so central to the worship of the one god of Israel that Old Testament authors saw human history as the working out of this pact over time. More than anything else, what the covenant required was a commitment from people as moral beings.
The roles of women and men are different in God's covenant. Therefore, while there are divine expectations of individual as well as collective responsibility for behavior, in compliance with or rejection of the specific provisions of the covenant, the expectations of moral responsibility on the part of women and men are sometimes different. And as recorded in the Old Testament, the unfolding of God's covenant, or the human historical experience, has sometimes been quite different for each sex.
Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar As Moral Beings
What all of this meant for women is perhaps most explicitly conveyed by the nature of God's compact with Abraham, and it is therefore worth looking at this relationship in some detail. During the long period in which Yahweh promises title to the land of Canaan to him and his posterity in return for Abraham's fidelity and obedience, there is a good indication of what was understood as God's view of the appropriate roles for women in this divine covenant and an implicit value judgment about the moral capacities of women.
The transactions between God and AbrahamGod's promises, Abraham's misgivings and his difficult moral decisionsall exclude Sarah. At God's instigation, Abraham leaves his family, takes his wife along with his other possessions, and travels to Canaan without any prior consultation with Sarah, beyond telling her that, wherever they go, she is to pose as his sister. (And of course she is his half-sister, the daughter of his father, as well as his wife.) While Sarah does not participate in the divine covenant, her beauty and Abraham's half- truth, the latter evidently endorsed by God, lay the basis for the patriarch's material prosperity (Gen. 12, 13:1-2) and for his final peaceful settlement in the land promised to him and his descendants by God.
First a famine drives them to Egypt. Because of her great beauty, Sarah is taken into the pharaoh's palace, "And for her sake, he dealt well with Abram: and he had sheep, oxen, he-asses, menservants, maidservants, she-asses, and camels" (Gen. 12:16). God afflicts the pharaoh and his household with plagues, presumably because Sarah has been included in the royal harem. The pharaoh rebukes Abraham for not having disclosed that Sarah was his wife, returns her to him, and orders him out of Egypt with all of his possessions. Abraham was by then vastly enriched by Sarah's sojourn in the pharaoh's harem: "Now Abram was very rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold" (Gen. 13:1-2).
When they reach Canaan, Abimelech, the king of Gerar, sends for the beautiful Sarah to make her one of his women. God appears to Abimelech in a dream, informs him that Abraham is a prophet and that Sarah is his wife, and threatens him and all his people with death if he does not return her to her husband. Abimelech confronts Abraham with the danger he had exposed him to, through no fault of his own, and Abraham replies: "Because I thought: Surely the fear of God is not in this place; and they will slay me for my wife's sake" (Gen. 20:11), and he explains that she is also his half-sister. Whereupon Abimelech restores Sarah to Abraham, provides him with restitution for her in the form of sheep, oxen, slaves, and silver, and gives him leave to live wherever he wants to in his land. In return, Abraham intercedes with God to restore the fertility of all the women of Gerar (Gen. 20).
Recent evidence from the Nuzi archives has uncovered the existence of a Hurrian practice of that time that enabled a man to buy, and legally adopt as his sister, an unrelated woman at the same time that he married her. Apparently wife-sisters then enjoyed extra privileges and protection not normally accorded to wives. Some scholars, in what may be an attempt to mitigate what seems to be the use of Sarah's beauty and sexuality as a means of enriching Abraham, saving his life, and fulfilling God's promise to him, have pointed out that the designation of Sarah as his sister, in line with that Hurrian institution, might have represented Abraham's attempt to elevate Sarah's status.
However, according to the biblical account, Sarah is not adopted by Abraham but is really his half-sister. This seems to provide her with no protection whatsoever from either the pharaoh or Abimelech. Indeed, she is released by those rulers not because they know she is Abraham's sister (which is why they took her into their harems in the first place), but because God tells them she is Abraham's wife.
Furthermore, when questioned by Abimelech about his reasons for concealing their marriage, Abraham himself says that he did it not in order to raise Sarah's status but in order to save his own life (Gen. 20:11). In other words, Sarah, who is not an active partner in the divine covenant, is used as a virtual pawn in the negotiations between God, Abraham, the pharaoh, and Abimelech. And it is her physical beauty and sexuality alone, not her relationship to God or her moral decision to enter into such a relationship, that results in the prosperity of Abraham and his peaceful settlement in Canaan, in fulfillment of the covenant.
In addition, circumcision of males became the divinely ordained sign of the covenant, the outward mark of conversion to monotheism. When first introduced by God, it was apparently considered so momentous that not only was it accompanied by the divine promise to Abraham that he would father "a multitude of nations," but also it occasioned the name-change of Abram to Abraham and Sarai to Sarah, further heightening the significance of the conversion (Gen. 17:9-15, 23-27). But though Sarah obviously shares in the divine promise, just as she does in the name-change, as the future mother of multitudes, she and all other women were forever barred from this sacred, commemorative ritual of circumcision solely on account of their sex, with no parallel rite permitted to them.(3)
The expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael after the birth of Isaac portrays Sarah in a most unsavory light (Gen. 16, 21:1-21). Because of her prior sterility, and in conformity with prevailing Near Eastern customs and not to fulfill any part of the covenant with GodSarah provides Abraham with a concubine, her Egyptian slave woman Hagar. She does this in order to guarantee his posterity, or she uses Hagar as she herself was used, in order to satisfy Abraham's needs and fulfill his destiny. While Abraham treats Ishmael like a loving father and has him circumcised, it is Sarah who treats both Hagar and Ishmael abominably.
Sarah is shown as motivated not by any moral concerns but rather only by material considerations when she refuses to let Ishmael share the inheritance with her own son Isaac. It is important to note that God tells only Abraham, not Sarah, that Ishmael will father a whole nation, "because he is your offspring/' and "through Isaac shall your descendants be named" (Gen. 21:12-13). And throughout, the fine hand of a patriarchal god may be detected.
Sarah's sterility was, of course, her greatest shame, since the role of women as childbearers, especially son-bearers, was overwhelmingly important. The impregnation of Sarah when she was ninety serves the divine purpose admirably, since it demonstrates the tremendous power of God. The siding of God with Sarah in her dispute with Hagar, which terminates with the casting out of Hagar and Ishmael into the desert (or granting them their "freedom"), does not confront Sarah with any moral dilemma or compel her to accept the consequences of her moral or immoral behavior, but instead merely pits woman against woman as reproducer.
Furthermore, despite the divine pledge that Ishmael would father another great nation, God's attitude toward Hagar is rather curious in the context of his continuing concern for the just and humane treatment of slaves, the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, and the alien. While Ishmael's future is assured, even with God's intervention it could not have been easy for Hagar alone in the desert with an infant. But what happened to her apparently was considered so inconsequential, all that is recorded is that Ishmael grows up in the wilderness under God's protection, and that Hagar selects a wife for him (Gen. 14-21).
Indeed, in this section of the covenant narrative, it is as though the most significant thing about free and slave women alike in their relationship with God was their ability or inability to bear children, or as though their most important role in observing the provisions of the covenant was reproductive. But even in this role they were not honored as coprogenitors with Abraham but were seen as only instrumental, since it is the offspring of Abraham who were destined to fulfill the divine promise.
This subsidiary function of women in the covenant is underscored in the most dramatic test of Abraham's faith in God, namely the latter's command that the patriarch sacrifice his only son, Isaac (actually his second son, after the machinations of Sarah and God had effectively disposed of the first). There seems to be no doubt whatsoever that it was a human sacrifice that was required. By the second millennium, while animal sacrifice was usually regarded as a satisfactory substitute, human sacrifice was still resorted to in extraordinary circumstances in Canaan and elsewhere. Moreover, the prophetic preachings against human sacrifice would seem to indicate that in Israel this practice was not wholly eliminated from popular attitudes toward the range of acceptable behavior until the time of the Babylonian exile (Lev. 18:21, 27; Deut. 12:31, 18:9; Jer. 7:31; Mic. 6:7).
What is so striking here is the biblical treatment of Sarah as the other parent of Isaac, and its possible larger significance as symbolic of the role of women in God's covenant with Israel. Sarah waited ninety years to become a mother. And God clearly recognized the importance of that role, since he made it possible for her at such a late age, used it as a vehicle for the display of his power, and supported Sarah in the expulsion of the other mother and child in furtherance of his own aims for Israel through her son.
Yet, though the test of Abraham's faith in God hinges on his resolution of the conflict between the divine order that he sacrifice Isaac and his paternal love, Sarah is not likewise required to make such a moral choice as a sign of her faith in God, nor is she even made aware of the necessity for such a choice. At no point are Sarah's maternal feelings or her opinion about the impending sacrifice of her son taken into consideration. By not being consulted and not participating in the decision to sacrifice Isaac she becomes, in effect, only marginal to the covenant between God and Abraham, except that her body bore Isaac.
While women, like men, are bound to obey God's commands and therefore must have been judged as capable of making moral choices, nowhere in this crucial divine-human covenant are there provisions that indicate the capacities of women as moral beings. The supreme act of faith in God, enacted in the near-sacrifice of Isaac, cements the covenant between God and Israel in a scenario in which all the main actors are male, and women, whether slave or free, occupy a peripheral place. Except as beautiful sex-object, wife, concubine, or motherall roles established by their relationship to men, not Godwomen have no part in the covenant (Gen. 12, 13, 15, 18:1-15, 21:1-21, 22:1- 19).
Women and Men As Morally Accountable to God
It should go without saying that there are many images of women, sometimes conflicting ones, in different parts of the Old Testament, depending on the time of the final redaction, the type of literature, and the prevalent social and political conditions. But in this God-centered document, which has at its heart the transmission of Yahweh's moral laws to the human community, including women, and the conveyance of the divine promise, or covenant, contingent on the faithful obser- vance of these laws by individuals and the social group, again certainly including women, seminal distinctions of a moral nature are made on the basis of sex.
In a religion that stresses moral accountability to God above all, women, even as they are surely included in the community of believers, are not infrequently portrayed as either less morally responsible than men in their relationship to God, or are shown as moral agents only by virtue of their primary relationship to men. In short, women as moral persons are regarded with profound ambivalence.
For example, if a man makes a vow to God, he is bound by it. If a woman makes a vow to God, it is binding on her only if her father or husband hears it and says nothing, or tacitly approves. But if a woman makes a vow to God, and her father or husband says he disapproves, she is not bound by that vow, and the Lord will forgive her (Num. 30:2-8). Since fathers and husbands do not need any woman's concurrence in their vows to God, the moral double standard in this instance is glaring, and, indeed, the prophets and patriarchs relate to God as individuals, outside of any family affiliations. Their primary moral affiliations are quite properly to God, not to mothers, wives, sisters, or daughters.
The vows to God of a widow or a divorced woman would stand as though made by a morally responsible person, but only if these vows were made outside of her husband's house, or only if he concurred with silence and did not immediately void them before his death or their divorce (Num. 30:9-14). Even if the husband negated his wife's vows after some time had elapsed, and therefore they remained intact, it is not the woman who would suffer, but her husband would "bear her iniquity" (Num. 30:15), as though she were far less morally accountable to God than was her husband.
In addition, it must be remembered that both widows and divorced women had a precarious existence in the family-based social structure of ancient Israel. If the divorced woman remained perpetually unattached, she was likely to be regarded as something of a pariah and was certainly deprived of the legal status that had accrued to her through her husband. The widow was part of the group repeatedly selected by God as especially deserving of compassion.
While these conditions probably faithfully reflect the attitudes toward women of ancient Israel in those times, namely that they were the property of their fathers and husbands, or that the father or husband "epitomized" or represented all the members of the family in many of its dealings with the outside community,(4) there is still another dimension to these divine commands.
God was seen not only as the deity of Israel but also as a universal deity. In this latter aspect, vows made to him involved a commitment to the laws of this single god rather than to the many divinities in Israel's environment, under threat of divine punishment, and obedience to God's universal laws was required of all people, Hebrews and non-Hebrews alike. Therefore, though written from the viewpoint of ancient Hebrew society and its attitudes toward women and men, these divine commandments regarding the moral propensities of the former mark women off as a sex, standing in a different and more peripheral moral relationship to God than men in all societies, at least in those times.
Illustrative of the other face of this deep ambivalence toward women as fully moral persons, both men and women were offered the option of dedicating their lives to God as Nazirites, or consecrating themselves to an austere mode of life for a period of anywhere from thirty days to two years. This special vow to God, often taken by persons of either sex for purely personal reasons, such as gratitude for the birth of a child or recovery from illness,(5) was one of the few which, for women, did not necessitate any endorsement by fathers or husbands (Num. 6:1-21).
However, the most well-known Nazirites are, of course, Samuel and Samson, and it would be difficult to find female counterparts of equal stature. Furthermore, Samuel is dedicated to God not because of the special purity of either of his parents, but because of God's response to the tragedy and shame of his mother's inability to bear children until his birth (1 Sam. 1:1-22). And when Samson's hitherto barren mother is told by an angel of the Lord that she will bear a son who will be a Nazirite, she is warned by him not to drink wine or eat anything unclean (Judg. 13:2-7, 13-14)two of the outward signs of those who consecrated themselves to Godnot for her own sake, for she makes no vow, but to protect the purity of her future offspring.
The differentiation between women and men in terms of the capacity of each sex for making moral decisions is reinforced in another part of the Pentateuch that lists all of the sexual relationships prohibited by God. With the exception of forbidding women to have intercourse with animals (recalling the Cretan Queen Pasiphae and the Sacred Bull of Poseidon), these prohibitions are directed almost exclusively toward men. They are not to lie with their mothers, sisters, daughters, aunts, daughters-in-law, etc. Even the prohibition of homosexuality is addressed only to men, as though it would not be a possible choice for women (Lev. 18:6-23).
But underlying all these sexual bans, again applicable almost solely to men, is the assumption that only the latter have a developed enough sense of right and wrong to choose to obey them, particularly since disobedience is described in no uncertain terms as "abomination" and "defilement." Indeed, the phrase "defilement of the land," which God warns will follow disobedience, refers to moral offenses rather than ceremonial transgressions.(6) The language of the whole passage, in which Israelite and non-Israelite alike are warned away from the sexual practices of Egypt and Canaan, is couched in terms of universal moral laws (Lev. 18:1-5). And the punishment for what was seen as immoral sexual behavior is clear and awful since such behavior is described as a transgression against God's laws (Lev. 18: 24-30).
However, while the injunctions against sexual misbehavior or, more properly, disobedience, are directed mainly to men, as those more capable of making a moral judgment, the punishments for violating these sexual taboos are to be suffered by both women and men. This is yet another expression of the ambivalence toward women as moral beings. Yahweh simultaneously warns mostly men against committing these transgressions but includes women equally with men as part of the moral community, or as recipients of divine punishment for moral sins. Death, burning, childlessness, iniquity, and being cut off from the rest of the tribe, all penalties for different types of sexual transgressions, are to be shared by persons of both sexes. And this is so even though the decision to transgress in these cases is apparently made primarily by men, since they are the ones warned against transgression in the first place (Lev. 20:10-21).
The Woman and Man As Moral Beings in the Creation Myth
Again, while a fuller analysis of the implications of the creation story must be reserved, some of the narrative bears directly on the question of whether women were seen to be as fully accountable as men for their moral behavior. It is noteworthy that after the fruit is eaten, God is portrayed as dealing differently with the serpent and the man than with the woman. He directly links his punishment of the serpent and Adam with their disobedience to his command, or to their moral transgression. His first words to the serpent are: "Because you have done this" (Gen. 3:14). His first words to Adam are:
"Because you have listened to the voice of your wife,
and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
'You shall not eat of it.' " (Gen. 3:17)
When he speaks to the woman, he does not directly link her punishment to her moral transgression. He says only:
"I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you." (Gen. 3:16)
Once more, it is as though both the serpent and the man are thought of by God as more capable of making moral choices, or more morally responsible, than the woman.
The expulsion of people from paradise for their sin introduces the general notion of human responsibility for their behavior. Though the woman is the first to eat the forbidden fruit, there is an interesting difference between the divine punishment of the woman and the man. It is apparently assumed that the only roles possible for the woman are those of mother and wife, because nothing else is mentioned, and she is cursed in those roles. But the man's curse is not restricted to his roles as husband and father. God's punishment of Adam is longer, and involves a much more complex relationship between him, his work, the land, and his death (Gen. 3:17-19).
Also, when God summarizes the moral offense of the man and woman and expels them from Eden, the wording is curious:
"Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil;
and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat,
and live for ever"therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden,
to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man. (Gen. 3:22-24)
God's references here are singular and addressed only to "the man." Eve's sin and punishment are simply not part of the picture. It is as if they are considered so much less important than Adam's that they are not even worthy of mentionas if the moral identity of Eve is already incorporated into that of her husband.
Divine Ambivalence toward Women As Moral Beings: the Exodus
The different responses of God to the same moral offense, depending on the sex of the offenders, are to be found in other parts of the Old Testament. But in at least one instance, God's sex-related behavior is strikingly illustrative of the ambivalence with which women as a sex came to be regarded. Its significance is further heightened by its occurrence in one of the narratives central to the establishment of Israel as a people, confirmed in a special relationship to the divine.
The Hebrews' exodus from Egypt and their long journey to the land of promise constitute some of the more spectacular episodes in the long history of their interaction with Yahweh. Indeed, their deliverance from slavery by God was climaxed by their fusion into a people under a holy compact. As has been pointed out elsewhere,(7) a variety of women were involved as active and autonomous agents of that process of liberation, from the Hebrew midwives who refused to obey the pharaoh's orders to kill all the Hebrew male children because they "feared God" (Exod. 1:17, 21), to the women, both Hebrew and Egyptian, who disobeyed the pharaoh when they saved Moses and nurtured him to adulthood (Exod. 2:1-10), to Miriam, who is mentioned in the prophetic literature, along with Moses and Aaron, as one of the leaders of the exodus (Mic. 6:4).
Against this backdrop of strong and effective involvement by women in the struggle to free the Hebrews, there is a straightforward account of the dispensation of divine justice and compassion on the basis of sex alone, or the negative face of the ambivalence toward women. During the wanderings of the Hebrews, both Miriam and Aaron, on an equal footing, challenge the exclusive status of Moses as the only prophet of God and claim prophetic status for themselves as well (Num. 13:1-2). God is furious with both of them for questioning his decision to speak with Moses alone "mouth to mouth," but afflicts only Miriam with leprosy (Num. 13:6-10). After Moses intercedes on her behalf, God consents to exile her "in shame" for a week, like a rebellious daughter, and then permits her to rejoin the tribe and continue with them on their journey (Num. 13:14-16).
What can be made of this episode in which the apparent coleaders, Miriam and Aaron, both provoke God's anger, but the woman is punished and the man goes unpunished for the same act? Later rabbinical commentators theorized that Miriam sexually enticed Aaron to defy God, but there is nothing in the context of the chapter to suggest this, nor is there any difference indicated in their relationship with Moses beyond the fact that Miriam was female and Aaron was male.
Indeed, if one were to assume that God knew that Aaron and his sons were to become the priests of Israel, Aaron's transgression might have been the greater. In the early chapters of Leviticus, which list the several kinds of mandatory sin-offerings required of different groups in the population, God declares that if an anointed priest committed a sin he would bring guilt not only on himself but on all the people (Lev. 4:3).
Gender, the Advent of Monotheism, and Ethical Progress
Many have claimed that the development of monotheism denoted great ethical progress over earlier polytheistic religions because it introduced a belief in the existence of universal moral laws, and be- cause it set a standard of righteousness for human behavior, since it was the outstanding quality of God. For example, the great biblical scholar William F. Albright maintained:
In essentials, however, orthodox Yahwism remained the same from Moses to Ezra. From first to last ethical monotheism remained the heart of Israelite religion, though there were many crises through which it had to pass during the slow change from the primitive simplicity of the Judges to the high cultural level of the fifth century b.c.(8)
On this same theme, Sabatino Moscati wrote:
In any case, apart from the question of the time at which it was fully manifested, ethical monotheism is the dominant feature of the religion of Israel. ... it is a distinctive quality of Israel that it insisted on righteousness as the deity's supreme and constant characteristic.(9)
And some years later, Albright wrote:
One of the most remarkable features of Mosaic legislationalways using the term in its widest sense, of laws approved or introduced by Moses and developed in later Israelis its humanity to man. It is the most humanitarian of all known bodies of laws before recent times.(10)
The use of terms like "ethical monotheism," "righteousness," and "humanitarian" by Albright, Moscati, and others suggests a moral universality at the center of Israelite monotheism that bears looking at as it applied to women and men.
Lot and his Daughters
For instance, as a universal deity, God destroys the pagan cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their wickedness, but it is interesting to note that he does not fault them for practicing idolatry or neglecting to worship him. Not much is said in Genesis about the nature of their sin except that God has heard the "outcry" of the suffering in those cities. Ezekiel describes the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah in some greater detail: "Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom: Pride, abundance of food, and prosperous security were hers and her daughters'; but the hand of the poor and the needy did she not strengthen" (Ezek. 16:49). There is the assumption here that Sodom violated some universal moral laws laid down by God, just as people of Noah's time did, and that God's retribution may be dealt to any people who defile themselves or commit abominations in a moral, rather than purely ritual, way.
In light of this universal God's concern with morality, it must be noted that when Lot extends his hospitality to the two angels of the Lord who come to Sodom (an ancient and honored custom among nomadic peoples), and all the men of Sodom surround Lot's house and press him to bring his guests out so they might "know" them carnally, Lot offers the mob his two virgin daughters instead. He says: "I pray you, my brethren, do not so wickedly. Behold now, I have two daughters that have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes; only unto these men do nothing; forasmuch as they are come under the shadow of my roof' (Gen. 19:7-8).
The two visitors are identified as angels at the beginning of the chapter, but not to Lot. He addresses them as "My lords" (Gen. 19:2), and refers to them only as "these men . . . (who) are come under the shadow of my roof." Evidently, in the hierarchy of moral values in those days, even universal moral values decreed by God, protecting male strangers in one's tent ranked above protecting one's own daughters. Lot does not even refer to the possible gang-rape of his daughters as "wicked." (The later rabbinical contention that Sodom was full of male homosexuals, that it was their real wickedness, and that Lot therefore knew his daughters would be safe, seems to be at the least interpretive and at the worst an apologia; otherwise, the intervention of the angels to save Lot's daughters seems inexplicable.) While the compassion of God is extended to "the poor and the needy," it is not extended to the same degree to Lot's daughters. Their father is not punished for violating any divine moral law by offering them to the mob of men, nor was that act apparently sufficient to cause an "outcry." On the contrary, along with his family he is saved from the general destruction of Sodom, "the Lord being merciful to him" (Gen. 19:16). And it is only his wife who is punished and turned into a pillar of salt for disobeying the angels' command not to look back.
What is even more curious is that biblical scholars today can write about the destruction of these wicked cities as illustrative of God's compassion and concern that all people obey universal moral laws without even noticing that (a) these moral laws cannot be universal, even in patriarchal times, if half the human race is somehow removed from their protection, or (b) if no "outcry" reached God about Lot's offer to have his daughters raped instead of his male guests, it may well have expressed social attitudes toward women and men at the time of the final redaction of Genesis but can hardly be recognized as a universal moral law.
In an otherwise fine book, for example, Nahum Sarna writes about this episode: "The 'outcry' of Sodom, then, implies, above all, heinous moral and social corruption, an arrogant disregard of elementary human rights, a cynical insensitivity to the sufferings of others."(11) Does the offering up of daughters for gang-rape in order to protect male strangers under one's roof not constitute "heinous moral and social corruption, an arrogant disregard of elementary human rights, a cynical insensitivity to the sufferings of others"? More plainly, do women not have "elementary human rights" or the capacity to suffer? Does the rape of a woman represent less "heinous moral corruption" or violation of "elementary human rights" than the rape of a man?
That Sarna is not confining himself to the social mores of that early period is fairly clear when he continues, further down:
The sins are entirely on the moral plane, . . . the Sodom and Gomorrah narrative is predicated upon the existence of a moral law of universal application for the infraction of which God holds all men answerable. The idea that there is an intimate, in fact, inextricable, connection between the socio-moral condition of a people and its ultimate fate is one of the main pillars upon which stands the entire biblical interpretation of history. (Sarna's italics.)(12)
And a bit further along, Sarna elaborates on what this passage reveals about the monotheistic conception of God:
The universality of God is presumed throughout the story. . . . He is "the Judge of all the earth" (18:25). . . . God is assumed to be the architect of a societal pattern which is universal in scope. . .Above all, the Bible is concerned with the problem of divine justice. Just because God is universal and omnipotent mankind needs assurance that His mighty power is not indiscriminately employed and that His ways are not capricious. God must act according to a principle that man can try to understand, and that principle is the passion for righteousness.(Italics mine.)(13)
One can only conclude either that God does behave capriciously in respect to women, or that his passion for righteousness does not extend to women as fully as to men, or that he dispenses divine justice using a double standard based on sex, in which women receive far less justice than men. And what all of this has to do with "a moral law of universal application" (except that it includes pagans as well as nonpagans under its jurisdiction) is very elusive when one thinks of women and men. That this last is sometimes simply not a concern of scholarshipand, until recently, most scholars have not considered women as important a subject for study as menmay be seen in Sarna's discussion of the covenant between God and Abraham, which in its exclusion of any consideration of the roles of Sarah and Hagar might lead to the conclusion that Isaac was the product of a virgin birth by his father.(14)
The Levite and his Concubine
The same double standard of divine justice and compassion based on sex may be found in the last few chapters of the book of Judges. At the outset, it should be noted that later rabbinical commentators have pointed out that it was written early and represented a period in Israel's development when there was much confusion and reversion to pagan practices, and when great charismatic leaders or judges were required to bring some semblance of order to the people. But if the tribes of Israel were confused, presumably God was not. And though the action is described through the eyes of those earlier times, its inclusion in the final canon says something about its meaning to men of a later period. Since the aid of God is solicited and obtained in this passage, it becomes one of a number of sex-linked moral components in the divine-human relationship.
The story has to do with a Levite whose concubine leaves him and returns to her father's house. When he comes to reclaim her, the woman's father greets him joyfully and entertains him royally. After several days, the Levite and his concubine (silent, with neither of the men consulting her feelings) leave for his home, and they spend the night in Gibeah, among the Benjaminites.
The latter refuse to extend the hospitality of their homes to the travellers, which immediately indicates that something is amiss. But an old man from the Levite's part of the country, who just happens to be in Gibeah at that time, takes them in for the night. And just as the men of Sodom wanted to "know" Lot's guests, so the men of Gibeah come to the old man's house and demand that he yield up the Levite (Judg. 19:22). (Incidentally, for its bearing on what happens next, later commentary does not identify the Benjaminites as homosexual.) The old man replies:
No, my brethren, I pray you, act not wickedly; since this man is once come into my house, do not this scandalous thing.
Behold, here is my daughter a virgin, and his concubine; let me bring them out now, and humble ye them, and do to them what seemeth good in your eyes; but unto this man do not this scandalous thing.
But the men would not hearken to him; so the man took hold of his concubine, and brought her forth unto them into the street; and they knew her, and ill-used her all the night until the morning; and they let her go when the day began to dawn. (Judg. 19:23-25)
The concubine lies on the doorstep, gang-raped to death. The Levite returns home with her body, cuts it into twelve pieces, and sends them to the tribes of Israel. Outraged, they decide to punish the guilty men, but when the city refuses to produce them and chooses instead to fight the other tribes, the latter, with divine approval, battle the Benjaminites. And as they are to be defeated, these men who committed and then condoned rape and murder are described as "men of valor" (Judg. 20:44-46).
The victors swear an oath not to give their daughters in marriage to the Benjaminites but lament the loss of one of the tribes of Israel (Judg. 21:3) and express compassion for the men of that tribe since so many of their wives died in the carnage (Judg. 21:6-7). So the men of the other tribes attack Jabeshgilead and kill every woman, man, and child in it, except for four hundred virgins, whom they turn over to the "valorous" rapists and murderers for wives. But even that number does not suffice, and in their concern that the tribe of Benjamin not die out, in their compassion for the Benjaminites, the tribes of Israel propose a plan whereby the men of Gibeah can abduct the daughters of Shiloh and take them as wives when they go out dancing in the fields (Judg. 21:15-24).
On one level, this narrates the social attitudes and practices of the Hebrews at the time when the book of Judges was written and finally redacted, and it may be understood as expressing the views toward women of male authors living in a male-dominant age that clearly considered women as lesser human beings than men. However, this male complicity in the use of women is rather difficult to fit under the shelter of God's righteousness, compassion, justice, and ethical concern, which seem, in this episode, to extend almost exclusively to the male Benjaminites, in fulfillment of the divine plan for Israel. The protection of male guests and the perpetuation of Israel certainly take precedence over the protection or even lives of women. The fathers and brothers of the virgins of Shiloh are absolved from guilt for permitting their capture by the Benjaminites. And though the book concludes with: "In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did what was right in his own eyes" (Judg. 21:25), it is clear that God's advice was sought and followed, and that he was implicated in the bloody confrontation: "And the Lord defeated Benjamin before Israel" (Judg. 20:35).
Furthermore, the battles and the scarcity of wives for the Benjaminites were precipitated by what was represented as an outrageous and immoral act, which in itself presumes that some standard of moral behavior was consensually held by most of the tribes. But it would seem that the moral outrage was not the gang-rape and murder of the concubine, or the offer of her to the Benjaminites, but the destruction of the female property of the Levite. Compassion is extended by Israel, acting under God's surveillance, to the male Benjaminites and not to the raped and dead concubine, the virgins of Jabeshgilead, or the daughters of Shiloh (Judg. 21:2-3, 14-16, 20-21).
While it is meaningless to transpose our current sense of morality back to those times, it is likewise meaningless for people in our own times to use general terms like "ethical monotheism," "justice," "righteousness," or "compassion" when discussing the concept of divinity in biblical literature. One must ask, "just, righteous, compassionate and ethical toward whom?"
As compared with polytheism, then, one aspect of the monotheistic conception of divinity was the elevation of gender to a more important role in establishing the nature of God's relationship with the human community in a manner quite alien to the polytheistic mentality. It seems as if the working out of the covenant in human history might have represented a moral advance or had ethical significance for the men of biblical times, but this progress was apparently less themselves products of their own cultures, as dispensing a double applicable to women. God sometimes was portrayed by biblical authors, standard of justice, righteousness, and compassion for women and men, with the former receiving a lesser share than the latter. If divine justice and compassion at times operated differently for women than for men, it might have been the result of the exclusion of women from full participation in the covenant with God, except in their sexual and reproductive capacities. Therefore, they were subsequently excluded from his full protection of every aspect of their personhood, or men were seen as standing in a closer moral relation to God than women.
But it cannot be emphasized enough that while all the above might be true, perhaps the most accurate description of monotheistic attitudes toward women is that they were profoundly ambivalent. For even as women were shown as somehow less capable of moral judgment than men, they were at the same time included as part of the community of believers, sometimes as coleaders with men, as in the case of Miriam. Likewise, though women's relation to God was sometimes shown as more indirect or peripheral than that enjoyed by men, they simultaneously suffered divine punishment for moral transgressions, or were subject to the same universal divine laws as men. Hence, while viewed to some extent as more marginal in an ethical sense, women, like men, were also seen as sharing a sense of right and wrong, or morality. And this fundamental ambivalence toward women also distinguished monotheism from polytheism.
If the Bible is compared with polytheistic writings, it may be that the former placed a greater emphasis on individuals bearing responsibility before God for their actions in a more substantive sense than required, say, by the Egyptian liturgical Negative Confession of sins; or that people in the Bible were assured that there were alternative courses of action open to them, some of which were more favorable in God's eyes because they represented moral behavior rather than mere propitiation of the divine; or that God compelled people to take into account and deal justly and mercifully with the special needs of disadvantaged groups like the poor, the orphaned and the enslaved. Thus the claims for the universal and ethical quality of biblical monotheism seem to be substantiated. If God is seen as just, righteous, and compassionate, then adherence to his commandments might produce a belief in the value of justice, righteousness, and compassion, or what we call a moral sense, among his worshipers.
But it must also be seen that women were not then considered disadvantaged because of their status or treatment. The justice and mercy that God commanded the community to show in meeting the special needs of the disadvantaged were not likewise extended to women, unless they were also poor, orphaned, or slaves. Correspondingly, adherence to divine commandments would not necessarily produce a belief in the value of justice, righteousness, and compassion, or "a moral sense," with respect to women. Thus the universal, ethical quality of monotheism is somewhat diminished.
However, the meanings of words change over time, naturally reflecting the attitudes and realities of the cultures that use them. Justice, righteousness, compassion, sin, transgression, even morality itself, may be understood today as encompassing social aspirations, ideologies, or realities that were, of course, inconceivable in, say, 500 b.c.e.
The Positive Face of Ambivalence: Wisdom As Feminine
The positive side of this basic ambivalence toward femaleness may be found in the description of a strong feminine involvement and even collaboration with God, which enabled worshipers to understand and obey divine laws and thus fulfill their obligations under the covenant. In the book of Proverbs Solomon, king of Israel, offers moral instruction, much of it dealing with the importance of following wise teachings and avoiding the snares of sin and evil behavior. Wisdom, as both a personification and as a matter of grammatical form, is always feminine.
While the knowledge of divine commands was seen as the first step in the sure path to righteousness, it is wisdom that leads to knowledge (Prov. 1:2-7). She establishes herself as the source of all the secular authority of kings and those who rule with justice (Prov. 8:15-16). Further, she describes herself as having existed from the very beginning of creation (Prov. 8:22-31):
"The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old.
Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth." (Prov. 8:22-23)
And she pronounces the most extreme rewards and penalties for those who do and do not follow her teachings:
'For he who finds me finds life
and obtains favor from the Lord;
but he who misses me injures himself;
all who hate me love death." (Prov. 8:35-36)
In the Apocrypha/Deuterocanonical Books, The Wisdom of Solomon describes how that king, renowned for his own wisdom, prayed to God for the acquisition of her treasures. Addressing himself to other secular rulers about the importance of gaining Wisdom, he describes her as "radiant and unfading" (Apocrypha, Wisd. of Sol. 6:12), accessible to all who desire her (6:13-22), and the means of attaining immortality, closeness to God, and earthly power (6:26-30).
Solomon then proceeds to enumerate in greater detail both the attributes of Wisdom and her very special relationship to God. He describes her as possessing superlative qualities (Wisd. of Sol. 7:23- 24, 29), and as "the fashioner of all things" (7:22); "a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty" (7:25); "a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness" (7:26); and she is shown as tremendously powerful: "but against wisdom evil does not prevail. She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well" (7:30, 8:1).
Speaking directly to God, he amplifies on the relation of Wisdom to the divine and her advantage to humanity (9:9-12). Finally, Solomon places Wisdom at the very center of human history, right at the side of Adam, Cain, Noah, Abraham, Lot, Jacob, and Joseph. She is depicted in the forefront of Israel's deliverance from bondage, and participates in the exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land, when she enters the soul of Moses (10).
It may be argued with considerable justification that Wisdom as an abstraction and female personification has little to do with women, and of course that is so, except that goddesses too were personifications. To the extent that their presence along with male divinities seems to have been reflected in the widespread involvement of persons of both sexes in cult and rite, it may be no accident that Wisdom is not portrayed in the Pentateuch, and that her attributes and power are described most extensively in the Apocrypha. Further, it may be contended that she lacks autonomy, that, like everything else, her source and creator is God, and that she is, after all, shown only as his first enterprise even while she is his constant and glorious ally.
Actually, there is some ambiguity in the characterization of Wisdom. For example, at one point in the Apocrypha, she is described as having been present when "thou didst make the world" (Wisd. of Sol. 9:9). However, in most of her portrayals and self-portrayals, she is described as his first creation, derivative or reflective of God, and his supreme agent. She is not independently active in the story of creation (Gen. 1:1-3). Indeed, the divine commands transmitted by Moses or the prophets come from God, not Wisdom. Nevertheless, she also displays an omnipresence that recalls the characterization of the Egyptian goddess Maat. Wisdom is not only presented as providing the knowledge necessary for righteousness but also becomes in these passages the very underpinning of earthly power, justice, and order, a prime shaper of the history of Israel, and she exists with God virtually from the beginning of time.
The Negative Face of Ambivalence: Isaiah and Ezekiel
By way of contrast with the positive attitudes toward femaleness in the Old Testament picture of Wisdom as feminine, equally strong negative attitudes may be found in parts of the prophetic literature. These instances of the denigration of femaleness, not of individually "good" or "bad" women, are deepened by the genuine importance accorded to Wisdom in her close alliance with God, and by the association by some of the prophets of negative attitudes toward femininity with the worst of all sins, idolatry.
The degree to which biblical conceptions of the divine were different from the beliefs in many goddesses and gods prevalent in surrounding cultures, and the difficulty of impressing some of these radically new conceptions of divinity on the popular consciousness within their own culture and elsewhere, may be inferred from the many passages in the prophetic literature that plead and reason with, warn and threaten, those who adhered to the older polytheistic beliefs and cultic practices. The process of religious conversion apparently was of long duration, and evidently was marked by much inertia and resistance in popular beliefs and customs.
Indeed, one way of looking at the writings of the prophets is that the intensity of their messages, their claims to direct communication with God, and their self-proclaimed function as conduits of divine commands, warnings, and threats all might have derived from their assumption of the role of representatives of the official religion of Yahweh as it tried to stem the tide of popular religious inclinations and practices. Much of the Old Testament attests to the magnitude of the struggle in which, time and again, and seemingly for the longest part of their history, the ancient Israelites questioned, defied, and disobeyed divine laws and were repeatedly admonished and threatened by the prophets with divine punishment as Yahweh tried to win the exclusive allegiance of his people.
The straying of the community from the injunctions of God may be seen, therefore, as the effects of the persistent attractiveness of polytheistic practices in their surroundings to the people of Israel, or as part of their popular religion. While the schism between popular and official religion was by no means always clear-cut and broad, it was a sign of the real conflict between the beliefs and teachings of the prophets and the outlook and customs of the people. And this conflict, too, set monotheism apart from polytheism, for in the latter there most frequently seems to have been a fairly easy, more tolerant, even pluralistic coexistence of official and popular religion.
However, though the whole community sins against Yahweh, the language and imagery used by some of the Old Testament writers in identifying the abominations of polytheism and the sins of Israel when breaks her covenant with God are often simultaneously feminine and pejorative. Moreover, there are passages in the prophetic books that exhibit such a close corollation of sin with the outward symbols of femininity or female sexuality that they can only be described as misogynistic.
Idolatry and Female Sexuality: The Prophetic Metaphor
For instance, the prophet Isaiah describes a time when Judah and Jerusalem are as sinful as Sodom, when confusion reigns and everything is topsy-turvy, when the elders and princes of Israel oppress the poor, and when "children are their oppressors, and women rule over them" (Isa. 3:2). And then, in an outburst of hatred for women, who become at once the symbols and scapegoats of Israel's sins, Isaiah relays the words of God, in which the idolatry of the Hebrews is represented by the "proud daughters of Zion," whose sexuality and nonspiritual concerns are displayed in their clothing, rings, bracelets, earrings, and mincing gait. Conversely, the return of Israel to righteousness is symbolized by the daughters of Zion being stripped of their finery and ornaments, or a time "when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion" (Isa. 3:16-26, 4:1-4).
If Isaiah links the straying of Israel from God and its general moral decay with the alluring dress of women, and the purification of Israel from sin with the washing away of the moral "filth" of the proud daughters of Zion, the prophet Ezekiel portrays the persistent attachment of the people of Israel to other religions in imagery that turns on female sexuality, female lewdness, and female prostitution. First, he writes in very sensual terms about the love of God for Israel, described as feminine, and the transaction of the covenant (Ezek. 16:1-14). Then God accuses Israel of playing the whore with every casual passer-by at his sanctuaries ("high places"), relying on her beauty, and indulging in harlotry with male images fashioned of the gold and silver ornaments God lavished on her in his love.
God threatens her with terrible violence from her former lovers, and while Israel is grammatically designated as feminine, Ezekiel shows God addressing her as if she were human. For example, Ezekiel has God say:
"therefore, behold, I will gather all your lovers, with whom you took pleasure and I will judge you as women who break wedlock and shed blood are judged, and bring upon you the blood of wrath and jealousy. . . . they shall strip you of your clothes and take your fair jewels, and leave you naked and bare. They shall bring up a host against you, and they shall stone you and cut you to pieces with their swords." (Ezek. 16:37-40)
Interestingly, this violent retribution is to be witnessed by real women: "they shall burn your houses and execute judgments upon you in the sight of many women" (Ezek. 16:41). And all of Israel's sins are pictured in totally feminine imagery. God says of her, using human relationships and especially female relationships to describe her abominations:
"Have you not committed lewdness in addition to all your abominations? Behold, every one who uses proverbs will use this proverb about you, 'Like mother, like daughter.' You are the daughter of your mother, who loathed her husband and her children; and you are the sister of your sisters, who loathed their husbands and their children. Your mother was a Hittite and your father an Amorite. And your elder sister is Samaria, who lived with her daughters to the north of you; and your younger sister, who lived to the south of you, is Sodom with her daughters. Yet you were not content to walk in their ways, or do according to their abominations; within a very little time you were more corrupt than they in all your ways. As I live, says the Lord God, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done." (Ezek. 16:43-49)
In a later passage, Ezekiel again laments the departure of Israel from God's laws and again employs feminine imagery, in which the sinning people are symbolized as both sexual women and prostitutes, perhaps in this case not an accidental association. The level of physical aggression that he foresees as inevitable divine retribution against women who flaunt their sexuality and consort with men of other religions and other cultures and here female sexuality seems almost equated with harlotryand, by extension, against the people who sin and indulge in idolatry, reveals a great deal about the intensity of Ezekiel's attitudes toward both sinning Israel and sexual females.
In a succession of images that fuse blasphemy, idolatry, female sexuality, and female wantonness, and that detail the consequences of these moral transgressions in God's awful punishment of sinning Israel as sinning female, Ezekiel closes this long passage with a warning to real women, and exhibits the stunning depth of his fear and hatred of femininity and female sexuality (Ezek. 23). Now it may be that the association of idolatry with femaleness stems partly from the fact that cities are always called "she." However, cities are not always designated as sexual, and it is the use of feminine metaphors that link idolatrous cities, cities portrayed as females, and cities described as sexually active (and if active, promiscuous and whoring) that is so illuminating.
What seems most remarkable in these passages from Isaiah and Ezekiel is that there are no corresponding symbols or imagery used to describe sinning Israel in terms of male sexuality, lewdness, lustfulness, or promiscuity with foreign women. Indeed, when King Solomon succumbs to the lure of other deities, it is blamed on the "foreign women." In cautioning men against marrying "outsiders," Nehemiah writes: "Did not Solomon king of Israel sin on account of such women? Among the many nations there was no king like him, and he was beloved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel; nevertheless foreign women made even him to sin" (Neh. 13:26).
In other words, the use of imagery describing female sexuality qua harlotry as equivalent to sin and moral transgression, deserving of the most violent divine reprisals, was widely enough accepted in popular belief by exilic times that it could be used as the basis for exhortations to radical religious reforms. And apparently the opposite side of the coin was blank. There seems to have been no corresponding association, in either the prophetic or popular mentality, of the sins of Israel with male sexuality or lust.
Just as female sexuality came to personify the transgressions of Israel, so, of course, the great polytheistic goddesses themselves were personifications of aspects of nature or human endeavors. And these prophetic attitudes toward female sexuality were dramatically and diametrically opposite to the polytheistic celebration of female sexuality in the Sacred Marriage, in which Inanna and Ishtar were seen as actively sexual and enjoying many lovers, and in which the consequences of their sexuality were viewed as advantageous to the whole community.
Evidence from the New Testament
If some Old Testament accounts of cultically crucial divine-human encounters express profound ambivalence toward femaleness in a moral sense, so too some equally important New Testament accounts of those encounters manifest the same depth of ambivalence toward femaleness in a spiritual sense. However, while God is, of course, at the center of both testaments, the variety of people who transmit his moral laws and record his long historical engagement with Israel in the Old Testament the prophets, psalmists, chroniclers, judges, kings are all supplanted by the single, towering figure of Jesus in the New. Therefore, in order to evaluate the importance attached to gender in conceptions of the divine in the New Testament, it is necessary to focus on aspects of the life and teachings of Jesus.
Given the importance to the earliest Christians of his birth or "coming," one might expect that the role of his mother Mary would be viewed as pivotal in the Gospels in order to establish the humanity of Jesus. But even in the very first instance of his presence, the woman chosen to physically enable his redemptive mission on earth is pictured, in relation to that divine event, with almost complete ambivalence.
The Negative Face of Ambivalence toward Women: Mary
The New Testament opens with a recording of the circumstances surrounding the birth ofjesus, presented in this version from a masculine point of view. It traces the ancestry of Joseph back through the greatest leaders of Israel and their fathers to Abraham (Matt. 1:1-17);a most curious opening because, except for the fact that he was later to marry the mother of Jesus, Joseph was not involved with the Virgin Birth. If, for example, Mary's ancestry had been traced back to Abraham, the significance of this genealogical line of descent might be explicable. While still a virgin, Mary "was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 1:18), and in order to prevent Joseph from divorcing her (then his unilateral right under Hebraic law), an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream.
Reminiscent of the exclusion of Sarah and Hagar from any substantive moral role in God's covenant with Abraham, and of their use as reproducers of offspring in order to fulfill the divine promise, Joseph, not Mary, is informed of the special conditions related to her pregnancy; Joseph, not Mary, is told to name him Jesus; and it is to Joseph, not Mary, that the special destiny of her child is revealed, in fulfillment of the Lord's wishes spoken by a prophet (Matt. 1:19-23). Their subsequent wanderings to Egypt and then to Nazareth (again recalling the wanderings of Abraham and his household as a result of divine communication with the patriarch), are undertaken on the advice of an angel who appears to Joseph (Matt. 2:13-15, 19-23). In all these negotiations about the issue of her body, Mary is not only silent; she is almost absent.
Jesus has customarily been viewed as the son of God (e.g., Mark 1:1; Luke 1:32, 3:22; John 1:14; Gal. 4:4) or as divinity incarnate, and though the matter of his sex may or may not be significant, he is incontrovertibly male. While his was without question presented as a unique birth with enormous symbolic and real implications, the fact that a mortal woman gave birth poses the question of her stature as the earthly parent. And here she is scarcely outlined as a person but is nearly a paradigm of the Aristotelian conception of woman's role in reproduction as the incubator of the unborn child. In other words, Mary provides the "material" form rather than the spiritual aspect of Jesus.
A View of the Positive Face of Ambivalence: Mary
Describing the other side of this ambivalence, Rosemary Radford Ruether argues that the prebirth passages in Luke, in which Mary is informed of the coming delivery, make of her "much more than just a passive instrument of God. She becomes an active agent, cooperating with God through her personal will and consent to bring about the Messianic advent. She becomes a symbol of Israel, or the New Israel, the church, the redeemed people of god."(15)
Expanding on Luke's interpretation of Mary's role in the Virgin Birth, Ruether maintains:
Luke makes Mary an active participant in the drama ofjesus' birth, accepting it through an act of free consent, and meditating upon the meaning of his future mission. Thus Luke begins that tradition which transforms Mary from being merely the historical mother of Jesus into an independent agent cooperating with God in the redemption of humanity. In other words, she begins to be a theological agent in her own right. This is espressed especially in her obedient consent to the divine command: "And Mary said, 'Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word" (Luke, 1:38).(16)
To be sure, in the Lucan gospel Mary is addressed directly by the angel of the Lord: "Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!" (Luke 1:28), and she alone converses face-to-face with him (Luke 1:26-38).
But this apparently more active involvement by Mary must be qualified. It may be that Ruether's view of Mary as 'an active agent, cooperating with God through her personal will and consent," "an independent agent cooperating with God in the redemption of humanity," "a theological agent in her own right," all somewhat overstate the case.
Perhaps the role of Mary in the divine birth, "expressed especially in her obedient consent to the divine command," comes nearer to the mark, for in the culture of ancient Israel, as a young and pious Hebrew woman, what else could Mary's response have been? It was, after all, not too dissimilar from the response of Samson's mother to the angel when informed that the son she was to bear would be a Nazirite.
Moreover, it is tempting to project our current notions of power and autonomy backwards in time. In the biblical environment, powerful men imposed constraints on women's behavior, and there is not much of a scriptural tradition of strong, independent, defiant women, except, for the most part, those who were aliens, idolatrous, or both. For example, it was unthinkable that Bathsheba should have refused to appear when summoned before King David, just as Esther, remembering the fate of Queen Vashti, risked her life by appearing unbidden before King Ahasuerus.
More generally, with rare exceptions like Deborah and Jael from an earlier period, if Hebrew women deviated from the commandments of God as translated by the prescriptions of men, they faced possibly heavy punishment (e.g., the confrontation between Tamar and Judah, Gen. 38:24). By approximately the middle of the first millennium, the discouragement of autonomy in women may be inferred from the metaphors of Isaiah, when he equates the sins of Israel with the pride of the daughters of Zion. Indeed, as already seen, it is only when these daughters are humbled and stripped of all the outward, public symbols of their pride and arrogance possibly, in our own language, of their independence that Israel can be cleansed and redeemed (Isa. 3:16 - 26,4).
Hence, despite her subsequent almost unsurpassed importance in the thought and writing of the early Church Fathers, in the Gospels Mary might have had no alternative but to obey. That she rather than Joseph is informed about the nature of the impending birth in Luke, as different from the version in Matthew, might have had less to do with her "active consent" than with the obvious reality that, in providing for the humanity of Jesus, Joseph simply plays no part. Also, unlike male leaders who covenant and even question and remonstrate with God, e.g., Abraham and Moses, Mary deals with an intermediary, questions nothing, and simply acquiesces. Once her son is born and embarks on his mission, Mary recedes into near-obscurity in the rest of the New Testament - as person, woman, or mother - so that Paul, for instance, never even mentions her by name.
Women, Men, and the Mission of Jesus
The life of Jesus is peopled with both women and men at many of its critical stages, and women as well as men are, of course, involved in the spread of his message after his death and resurrection. While a fuller discussion of women's role in cult must be reserved, it should be noted here that when Mary appears with her infant at the temple for the rituals of circumcision and purification, his identity as the redeemer is recognized by the devout man Simeon and the prophetess Anna (Luke 2:21-38).
Jesus convinces people of his divine origin by signs and healing, and he heals both women and men. People of both sexes are baptized (Acts, 8:12), and before Paul's own conversion, "if he found any be- longing to the Way, men or women" in Damascus, he brought them back, or "bound them," as prisoners to Jerusalem (Acts 9:1-2). Women believers are mentioned by nameDamaris (Acts 17:34), Lydia (Acts 16:14-15)and the apostles speak to the women of Philippi (Acts 16:13). Both Priscilla and her husband, Aquila, teach the converted Jew Apollos about Christianity and "the way of God more accurately" (Acts 18:24-26), and women pray with the apostles after the resurrection of Jesus (Acts I 1-14)
Furthermore, men are sent to the Gentiles in Syria, Antioch, and Cilicia to tell them that they do not require circumcision in order to be saved (Acts 15:29), and the removal of circumcision as a sign of special dedication to God, it would appear, implicitly removed the automatic cultic barriers to women. (That the last was not necessarily the case shall be seen later.) And in a series of letters to converts in different places, Paul urges them to welcome women as well as men who work for Christthe deaconess Phoebe (Rom. 16:1-2), Prisca (Rom. 16:3-5), Ap'phia (Philem. 2), Mary (Rom. 16:6), the mother of Rufus (Rom. 16:13), Julia (Rom. 16:15), Claudia (2 Tim. 4:21), and the like.
This dedication of both women and men to Christ's work is evident in the words of Peter, quoting the prophet Joel, about what will happen at the end of time:
"And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and daughters shall prophesy,
yea, and on my menservants and my maidservants in those days
I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.
And it shall be that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved." (Acts 2:17-21)
Elsewhere, Paul extends the appeal to oppressed people, implicitly including women living under Mosaic law, when he writes that "... God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world" (1 Cor. 1:27-28). Jesus himself declares that "everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted" (Luke 18:14). And since Chris- tianity evolved out of a small Jewish sect, the appeal to Israelite women must have been powerful, for, in many places, faith in Jesus and his teachings rather than submission to Mosaic law is stressed as the route to salvation.
The View of Jesus As a Feminist
This kind of evidence, along with the oft-quoted passage Gal. 3:28, has prompted many to interpret the meaning of Jesus' message as sexually egalitarian, or as spiritually inclusive of all persons regardless of sex. For example, in an essay heralded by a number of feminist theologians as extremely perceptive when it was first published,(17) Leonard Swidler argues that in early Christianity (as well as in some of the other great religions) "the initial burst of human liberation extended to women as well as men in a very high degree."(18) This represents one important modern perspective on Christianity, namely that Jesus himself was somehow exempt from the misogyny or ambivalent attitudes toward women found in the views of later Christian commentatorsSwidler himself sees Jesus as a feminist and therefore should be looked at with care.
One of the examples he cites is Jesus' attitude toward Martha and Mary when he visits with them in their home. The biblical passage reads:
Now as they went on their way, he entered a village; and a woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me." But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her." (Luke 10:38-41)
From this, Swidler concludes that Jesus opposed the notion of woman's function as merely domestic and supported Mary's "intellectual" interest when she sat at his feet. It should be noted first that Mary was hardly being intellectual in any creative way, or initiating any original ideas of her own, by sitting at his feet and listening. In addition, and far more important, Jesus never said for how long it was appropriate for Mary to choose "the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her." For two hours? Two weeks? Two years? And this consideration was crucial for women. In the absence of the magical power to feed thousands with a few loaves and fishes, which only the son of God had, someone had to prepare the food until the end-times came. And those someones (except for Jesus) were usually women.
Given the radical nature of his teachings in other areas, namely that faith in him would alone guarantee redemption, if he was really concerned about women sharing in the intellectual and spiritual life with men, he might have taught something else equally radical. In short, he could have said that men, perhaps his apostles, had to get into the kitchen for part of the time so that the Marthas of the world could also sit at the Lord's feet along with the Marys. In other words, the notion of "service" exemplified in the life of Jesus is nowhere extended by him in admonitions to his male followers to share more fully in the material labor of cooking, spinning, and child care so that women might share more fully in the life of the spirit.
In like fashion, Swidler attaches importance to the fact that Jesus' first appearance after his death was to a woman, whom he then told to carry the news of his resurrection back to the Eleven. But when Mary Magdalene and the other women relayed the good news, the apostles did not believe them (Mark 16:11; Luke 24:8-12). Indeed, in one telling, it is only after Christ appears to Simon that the apostles believe in his resurrection (Luke 24:34).
The risen Christ is, of course, one of the central tenets of Christian faith, and therefore much has been made lately of whom Jesus appeared to first. However, while cultural influences and biases have been freely acknowledged as coloring the content of early translations and theological discourse, or even the thought of some of his early disciplese.g., Constance Parvey locates the source of some of the attitudes expressed in 1 Corinthians in Paul's identification with the customs and social values he absorbed as a first-century Jewish teacher(19)it seems strange that the widespread Near Eastern custom of women participating in funerals and rituals for the dead has been largely overlooked.
For thousands of years, in many societies in this area, there is a long history of women of all classes whose role as mourners and attendants on the dead is widely attested. Thus, in its cultural context, the presence of women at the cross or at the tomb of Jesus was not exceptional, and in itself might not have signified exceptional courage or devotion. Furthermore, just as the sex of Jesus might have been merely incidental to his purpose on earth, as some have claimed,(20) so his appearance after death to women first might have been also incidental. Moreover, if Jesus had demonstrated in his own life that equal treatment of the sexes was an integral part of his mission, possibly the apostles would have credited the testimony of the women.
Likewise, Swidler believes that Jesus went out of his way to reject publicly the ancient blood taboo suffered by women by calling the attention of a large crowd to the fact that a bleeding woman touched him. He was not repelled by her supposed "uncleanness," and he publicly cured her. But the ritual "impurity" or "uncleanness" of women under Hebraic law was specifically connected to their menstruation ("impure" in Hebrew means, among other things, "menstruant woman"), and the woman who touched Jesus was afflicted with a twelve-year issue of blood (Mark 5:25-34). That is a disease, and menstruation is not. Jesus himself refers to her condition as a disease: "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease" (Mark 5:34), and he nowhere confronts the whole issue of menstruation and childbirth, which marked women as either ritually unclean or sinful.
Swidler concludes that Jesus was a feminist in the sense that he "treats women primarily as human persons and willingly contravenes social customs in so acting."(21) But was he and does he? That he treats women as persons is certainly true. He speaks to them, instructs them in Torah, and holds out the hope of salvation to them, as he does to every other group of pariahs. But he does not in any radical sense oppose either social conventions or the law as they affect women. In other words, Jesus himself relates to women in a manner that was radical for his time, especially in the framework of Hebrew society. But except by setting a personal example, which was no small thing, he does not insist that everyone else must act in a like manner in order to follow him.
Women and the Life of the Spirit
It is not that Jesus was not a feminist. It is that he had other concerns, which were in some respects, whether intentional or not, most alienating for women. For example, throughout the New Testament one of the major emphases is on the paramount importance of the spiritual world, next to which all the preoccupations of the material world seem trivial and transitory, except for acts of faith and loving one's neighbor. Jesus says over and over, in many ways: "It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life" (John 6:63). He teaches about the unimportance and imper- manence of the physical world: "Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions" (Luke 12:15). "Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat, nor about your body, what you shall put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing" (Luke 12:22-24). He tells people to: "Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Luke 12:32-34).
He urges people to abandon their families, land and possessions, and follow him (Matt. 19:29, Mark 10:29-30), but only the fathers, husbands, or sons of Hebrew women owned land and possessions, and therefore, in reality, those women could not make that moral choice. When a man says to him, "I will follow you, Lord: but let me first say farewell to those at my home," Jesus replies: "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:61-62). Jesus also says: "If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26). "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth" (John 4:24). "I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst" (John 6:41).
And this emphasis on the spiritual affects women as a group more than men, because they are the ones who literally baked the bread and bore the children; very young children require material as well as spiritual nourishment and care; and nursing an infant and disposing of its bodily wastes are very material work. It has nothing to do with whether all mothers are naturally maternal or better parents than fathers, or with whether women do or do not want their babies, or with all the other things they do in addition to bearing children.
For despite the likelihood of high maternal and infant mortality in those times, in the absence of widespread contraception, or an absolute prohibition of sex and marriage, or a strong endorsement of homosexuality, with Christians (as well as Jews) set against infanticide, which was widely practiced in their environment, it was finally the woman who bore the consequences of human sexuality. Historically, in most instances either the mother or other women cared for the children. And with whom was the mother to leave her infant when she abandoned her family and everything material to follow Jesus? For every mother of infants who did, there must have been a Martha tied to the physical requirements of this world, and to children who needed material care.
There are certainly women among Jesus' followers in his lifetime, and there are women associated with the apostles and disciples who spread Christ's message throughout the Mediterranean world after his death. But there is a conspicuous absence of children. And that may be one meaning of Jesus' public rejection of his own mother and family. When told that his family is asking for him, he says: "Who are my mother and my brothers? . . . Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother" (Mark 3:33-35).
When a woman in a crowd listening to him cries out: "Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked," Jesus responds: "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it" (Luke 11:27-28). What Jesus is repudiating here is not his mother as a person, because there is nothing in the narratives to indicate that she was anything but supportive or concerned about him. He is rejecting the ties of motherhood, the material responsibilities toward anything but his spiritual mission. It may also be why Paul on his own advocates chastity, if possible, so that all people might devote themselves entirely to spiritual matters. Hard-headed pragmatist that he was, Paul seems to have understood that as long as women and men have a sexual life together and Jesus did not explicitly oppose hetero-sexuality but only the primacy of material and family affiliations in the absence of a radical redistribution of labor between the sexes, the spiritual succession would probably have to be mostly male. Ironically, almost immediately after he speaks of the equality of all persons in Christ (Gal. 3:28), Paul describes this succession in all-male imagery:
But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir. (Gal. 4:4-7)
Unlike men, there appears to have been little a devout Christian woman could do if she wanted to devote herself totally to the spiritual life, except remain chaste or pray for sterility. However, there were many injunctions to preserve the status quoto love one's oppressors, to refrain from judgment and condemnation (Luke 6:27-38), to be "subject to the governing authorities. . . . and those that exist have been instituted by God" (Rom. 13:1). Jesus said: "for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world" (John 12:47). Lacking a divine mandate, then, to restructure fundamentally the social relations between the sexes, because of their biology women more than men were placed in a somewhat more peripheral relation to the life of the spirit.
Without a divine definition of spirituality as necessarily based on the full personhood of both sexes, or a divine acknowledgment of the inherent contradiction between a dedication of all people to the life of the spirit at the same time that the status quo of sexual inequality was preserved in society, there was not much likelihood that men, who held most of the secular power, would share in the time-consuming requirements of the material worldthe domestic and child-care choresso that women might have increased access to the spiritual. Furthermore, it was only to men that Jesus imparted some of his magic. He made it possible for his male apostles to heal so that they might wander from city to city and preach his gospel. He did not make it possible for the Marthas of this world to feed people with a few loaves and fishes so that they too could proselytize.
It seems evident that redemption was not based on sex. What counted above all was faith in the divine, and Sarah's conception in her old age as well as the safety of Rahab the harlot are both attributed to their faith in God (Heb. 11:11, 31). But Jesus was neither a feminist nor a misogynist. His central message simply lay elsewhere. And in the context of his message, women more than men, because of their reproductive functions and customary kinds of labor, probably continued to be more torn between the real obligations placed on them by the material world and their own inclinations toward the promises of the spiritual one. In spite of what must have been the powerful appeal of spiritual egalitarianism to those women who were subordinated under the law and in cult, in a very deep way early Christian attitudes seem to have been more consonant with the lives (and biology) of men and women past the age of childbearing than with those of younger women.
It seems likely that in ways we can never measure, the preachings about the superiority of the life of the spirit may have been profoundly discouraging and alienating to mothers of very young children, who knew about the realities of their own lives and realized that these preachings were profoundly insensitive to those realities. For the women were not asked to choose between earthly power and riches and following Jesus, but instead were told to love their neighbors while they abandoned their living children (probably to other women) in pursuit of their own salvation. Indeed, it is not that Jesus viewed women with ambivalence, but his emphasis on the superior value of the spiritual may have placed women more than men in an ambivalent relationship to the divine.
Equality between the Sexes: Gal. 3:28
Paul's statement "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28) has provided an emotionally appealing argument forthe nonhierarchical inclusiveness of women and men in equality byearly Christianity. But as pointed out elsewhere, this passage cannotbe understood apart from Paul's ethics governing the age before theimminent new order, or end-times.
Indeed, this passage seems to have little to do with the ethics of ordinary relationships between people of unequal status in normal times. From the perspective of slaves or of most women living in Paul's time, there were naturally inescapable material differences betweentheir conditions in life and those of free persons or men. And though Jesus came to save the world not judge it, and though one does not live by bread alone, in this life it is impossible to survive without it.
What Paul's formulation in Galatians does suggest, beyond his belief that the kingdom of God was at hand, is an equality of souls before God, perhaps at the time of judgment, and a more general theme recurrent in both testaments, namely, the transitory nature of secular wealth and status when measured against the permanent blessings of righteousness, a result of obedience to divine commandments.In other words, Paul seems to refer here to an extraordinary period,or to the afterlife, or even to the experience of having faith in Christ,but hardly to what might be applicable to all people as a Christian precept under ordinary circumstances in this life.
Just as Gal. 3:28 does not speak to the issue of the equal and ongoing participation of both sexes in religious ritual in this world, norto the more general issue of social equality, so the immediate context of the verse is couched in male imagery. Thus, both immediately before and after his strong expression of equality for all persons in Christ, Paul represents the divine promise as moving through the maleline of descent: "for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith" (Gal. 3:26), and "if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise" (Gal. 3:29).
Idolatry and Female Sexuality: The Metaphor in Revelation
While the attitude of Jesus toward women is undoubtedly different and more positive in many respects than those expressed in many parts of the Old Testament, the negative side of the ambivalence toward femaleness in general, and the linkage of female sexuality with sin in early Christianity, are both strikingly evident in the concluding book of the New Testament. The last consists of an extended analogy on a projected conflict between the forces of cosmic good and evil, or the teachings of Jesus versus apostasy of every sort, in which the former finally triumphs. It is replete with images of portents, visions, angels, beasts, plagues, and the future of nations and multitudes of people.
The climactic scene is the confrontation of the true faith with idolatrous worship. The latter, symbolized by Babylon in all its earthly wealth and splendor, is described, like sinning Israel, as female, explicitly sexual and a fornicator, and she is finally laid waste with violence. The following are samples of the way in which competing polytheistic religions were clothed in feminine imagery, and of the level of aggression directed against these other religions perceived as universally female.
An angel introduces Babylon as a great whore. She is called "Babylon the great, mother of harlots and of earth's abominations" (Rev. 17:5), and she is promised divine punishment:
''Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!
It has become a dwelling place of demons,
a haunt of every foul spirit,
a haunt of every foul and hateful bird;
for all nations have drunk the wine of her impure passion,
and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her
and the merchants of the earth have grown rich with the wealth of her wantonness."
Then I heard another voice from heaven saying,
"Come out of her, my people,
lest you take part in her sins,
lest you share in her plagues;
for her sins are heaped high as heaven,
and God has remembered her iniquities.
Render to her as she herself has rendered,
and repay her double for her deeds;
mix a double draught for her in the cup she mixed.
As she glorified herself and played the wanton,
so give her a like measure of torment and mourning."
so shall her plagues come in a single day,
pestilence and mourning and famine,
and she shall be burned with fire;
"So shall Babylon the great city be thrown down with violence, and shall be found no more;
The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever."(Rev. 18:2-8, 21; 19:3)
And the fate of the kings of the earth who were also fornicators?
And the kings of the earth, who committed fornication and were wanton with her, will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning; they will stand far off, in fear of her torment, and say,
"Alas! alas! thou great city,
thou mighty city, Babylon!
In one hour has thy judgment come."(Rev. 18:9-10)
While the level of violence directed against the feminine personification of sin against God is perhaps more restrained here than in the Old Testament, there is the same association of idolatry with femaleness, female sexuality, and harlotry. God judges Babylon and orchestrates the violent reprisals against her (Rev. 18:8, 19:2), but though the kings of the earth fornicate with her, there is no comparable imagery linking male sexuality with sin, idolatry, or abomination. Neither the fornicating kings nor their lands are violently destroyed. In short, there is no male counterpart, in image or fact, to the great whore of Babylon.
Gender and the Messianic Tradition
It is not only in the imagery used to describe idolatry and its consequences that differences based on gender may be found. In many of the areas in which God interacts with the human community, in both testaments, distinctions are made on the basis of sex. For example, the monotheistic conception of divinity encompassed different attitudes toward death than those held by polytheistic religions, and some of these differences had important implications with regard to the significance represented as attached to gender by the divine.
In contrast with the idea in Genesis that human sin caused death, in Mesopotamia just the fact of death was dealt with, and it was believed that the just and the unjust alike, of both sexes, suffered desolation. In Egypt, death was seen as possibly leading to immortality in a pleasant setting for both sexes if the Negative Confession of sins was performed properly in a ritual sense and was accepted by deities of both sexes who sat in judgment of the dead. The first-millennium Mediterranean mystery-cults held out the possibility of attaining immortality if persons of either sex first went through the proper rituals of purification, initiation into the sacred mysteries, and celebration of the sacred rites of a female or male deity.
The Old Testament prophets taught that divine retribution should be expected as the result of people's sins. But there is no great emphasis on this retribution immediately after death. Sheol is mentioned as the residence of the deceased, but there is no clear image of divine reward or punishment in that place. The closest approach to this notion may be God's warning in Deuteronomy that not only will those who disobey his commandments be cursed in every conceivable and practical way in this life, but also the curse will be inflicted on all their descendants as well (Deut. 23:15-68). The new idea introduced by some of the prophets is messianism, according to which concept a kind of catharsis and judgment would occur after people throughout human history, projected backward to the beginning of time, had been punished for their sins and undergone moral purification. But this event was to take place at the close of history, and a new and golden age would then emerge (Isa. 11:1-9).
In the New Testament version of messianism, Jesus is described as the Messiah, whose birth, suffering, and death in the body were seen as the means of expiating the sins of humanity. The prophetic vision of moral judgment taking place at the end of human history was transformed into the view that the end of time was imminent. And when that event failed to materialize, what was retained was the belief in the actual resurrection and immortality of the dead based on faith in the reality of Christ as the son of God, or divinity incarnate, and on the faithful observance of his teachings. ,
While the messianic beliefs of Judaism and Christianity obviously include persons of both sexes, the extent to which women of those times might have been seen as capable of participating in the process of moral purification, or seen as deserving of equal treatment with men at the final judgment, might well have depended on how fully or unambiguously they were incorporated as participants in the divine covenant with the human community. In the biblical view, to the extent that women as a group were set apart from men on account of their sex and regarded with ambivalence, they suffered under the constraints of a more marginal relationship to God in a moral or spiritual sense. In like fashion, to the extent that the worst of all sins, idolatry, came to be symbolized by rampant, unbridled female sexuality, the final judgment of women on moral or spiritual grounds alone might have been somehow diminished.
The Inflation of the Significance of Gender
Divine judgment is not by any means shown as always dispensed on the basis of sex. It is not so much that women as well as men were not punished for their disobedience to God's ordinances, as of course they were, or that women were punished more than men, which they sometimes were and sometimes weren't. It is in the finer sense that, in the androcentric view of some of the biblical writers, women seem to have had a smaller moral and spiritual stage than men on which to live out their lives, and this established a difference in the nature of women's relationship to God and men's relationship to God. In comparison to men, women are shown as more susceptible to definition by their sexual, biological, or reproductive functions. Insofar as these in any way limited their moral or spiritual capacities, it is as though women, at the same time that they are without doubt an integral part of the community of believers, are somehow considered less worthy of divine engagement.
There is no counterpart to the book of Job that features the torments and moral struggles of a woman, just as there is no daughter of God in any way comparable with Jesus. The queens of Israel are not like David or Solomon. Except for a few women like Deborah, Jael, and Chuldah, the judges, soldiers, and prophets of Israel are male, and while there are women among the followers and close associates of Jesus, they neither became his apostles nor wrote the New Testament.
There is no woman like Moses, who speaks "mouth to mouth" with Yahweh. There is no female counterpart to Abraham, who bargains with God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah if a few good men can be found there. And the resurrection of Lazarus may represent more an act of divine grace and a demonstration of the power of faith than an acknowledgment of any power that the sister of Lazarus has in her relationship with Jesus.
Thus, it would seem that the monotheistic conception of divinity elevated the importance of gender in a manner quite foreign to the outlook of polytheistic religions, whether it was used to describe the basis for divine judgment or action, or the interactions of people with the divine through their participation in cult. In a literature that stresses as central the existence of universal moral laws of divine origin, which all people are required to observe, those sections of biblical narratives that view women as suffering a more peripheral relationship to God in a moral sense, or see them as less developed moral beings than men, or portray them as having lesser access to spirituality than men not only are exclusionary of half the human race by their nature, but also make these distinctions only on the basis of sex.
At times female sexuality, or the very existential being of women, was viewed as a dangerous threat to the pursuit of righteousness by men, as shall be seen in the discussion of sex roles in the next chapter. At the very least, especially from the period of the exile on, women in their sexual aspect were easily associated with idolatry and rival religions in the prophetic and apparently the popular mind as well.
Even in cultically crucial narratives, such as those which describe God's covenant with Israel or those which establish the mortality of Jesus, some biblical authors present women as less significant than men in these transactions, or as more defined than men by their sexual or reproductive functions, especially in areas which involve moral choices or an ongoing, active commitment to the aims of the divine.
Sometimes, divine priorities with regard to the importance of women are made fairly clear, as, for example, in those passages which suggest that the safety or respect for the full personhood of women are not as much a matter of God's concern as a number of other issues that closely involve men, such as guaranteeing the survival of the offspring of Abraham or the male Benjaminites, in fulfillment of the divine promise. Proceeding from this representation of the divine, God therefore is at times shown as dispensing less justice and compassion toward women than men. And all these distinctions based on sex are considerably enhanced by the biblical conception of the divine as singular, transcendent, and universal in authority.
The Biblical Ambivalence Toward Women
Nevertheless, both women and men constitute the human community, and both are included within the moral and spiritual domain of the divine. In the Old Testament, there is the image of the powerful role played by Wisdom along with God in assuring the right and righteous ordering of the universe almost from the beginning of time, even though "she" is not mentioned in the Pentateuch. In the New Testament, the significance of Jesus' birth is revealed by the angel Gabriel to Mary alone in Luke, even if Mary diminishes in importance after his birth.
Also, in a body of religious writings that place a high value on moral redemption and resurrection, there is the passage in Galatians which assumes the full equality, probably after death, of all persons who have faith in Christ. In terms of the attitudes toward women of the Hebrews of that time, the inclusion of male and female is every bit as startling as that of slave and free, and it considerably reinforces the notion found in the Old Testament of equal accountability of pagan and Hebrew alike to universal moral laws. However, it introduces nothing substantially new, since it must be remembered that the foreign Jezebel was subject to divine retribution, just like her husband Ahab. And its sexually egalitarian sound must be qualified somewhat by the absence of any specifics, i.e., when, where, and how that sexual equality was to be achieved.
In short, what all the foregoing strongly suggests is that the monotheistic conception of divinity, recounted in biblical literature through the unfolding of God's relationship with humanity, placed a far greater emphasis on the gender of people and the sexual preferences of God than seems to have been characteristic of the polytheistic literature of those same times. In the Old and New Testaments, men tended to play a more powerful, autonomous, and morally responsible role than women, even as the nature of men's lives enabled them, more than women, to make moral choices about following divine commands.
Essentially though, given the inclusion of women in the community of believers, the attitude toward women as compared with men seems to have been characterized by much ambivalence. Women, like men, were held morally accountable and were punished for transgressions of divine laws, even if they were sometimes punished for the same offenses in different ways than men. Women, like men, were recipients of Jesus' healing and compassion. On the other hand, we find strongly pejorative attitudes toward women, the most fearful of which seem to have centered on female sexuality. But perhaps the most punitive of these negative attitudesequal in importance to the positive side of biblical ambivalence toward womenwere those expressed in simultaneous descriptions of God's moral laws as universal and of distinctions made by the divine that, in effect, treated women as lesser moral beings than men, or as less capable than men of making moral choices, or as more marginal than men in the divine covenant. Moreover, to the extent that God was shown as treating women and men differently, his laws were not only universal, but the reasons for this differential treatment of women and men by the divine, and the evidence for a moral double standardwithin the religious universe established by Yahweh, in which ethical concerns were represented as paramounthad nothing to do with morality, righteousness, or compassion, but with sex alone.
1. Phyllis Trible, "Nature of God in the OT," in Keith Crim, Lloyd Richard Bailey, Sr., Victor Paul Furnish, Emory Stevens Bucke, eds., The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible: Supplementary Volume (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1976), pp. 963-66.
2. For example, the inference one might draw from Judges is that Yahweh is not always able to prevent Israel from reverting to idolatry, just as, at the beginning of Job, it is not clear that God knows with certainty about the outcome of Job's trials.
3. While female circumcision is practiced among Muslims today, and indeed has been practised for a very long time in some cultures, its nature and purpose are quite different from those of the male circumcision required by God in the Old Testament. In most instances, it has no cultic significance. It is, in fact, a clitoridectomy, in which the clitoris is surgically excised in order to render women incapable of enjoying sex, or sexually passive. Its purpose may be to fulfill a cultural ideal of passive female sexuality or to insure the woman's monogamy. But in any event, male circumcision among the ancient Hebrews is not comparable to female circumcision.
4. See, for example, John H. Otwell, And Sarah Laughed: The Status of Woman in the Old Testament (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1977), pp. 55, 143.
5. J. H. Hertz, ed., Pentateuch and Haftorahs: Hebrew Text, English Translations and Commentary (London: Soncino Press, 1972), p. 592, n. 1.
6. Ibid., p. 493, n. 25.
7. Fiorenza, "Interpreting Patriarchal Traditions," and Dewey, "Images of Women," in Letty M. Russell, ed., The Liberating Word (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1977), pp. 49-51, 63-65.
8. William Foxwell Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1956), p. 175.
9. Moscati, The Face of the Ancient Orient, p. 253.
10.William Foxwell Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan: A Historical Analysis of Two Contrasting Faiths (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1968), p. 181.
11. Nahum M. Sarna, Understanding Genesis: The Heritage of Biblical Israel (New York: Schocken Books, 1974), p. 145.
12. Ibid., pp. 145-46.
13. Ibid., pp. 146-47.
14. Ibid., pp. 97-133, 154-63.
15. Rosemary Radford Ruether, Mary The Feminine Face of the Church (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1977), pp. 33-34.
16. Ibid., p. 33.
17. Leonard Swidler, "Is Sexism a Sign of Decadence in Religion?" in Judith Plaskow and Joan Arnold Romero, eds., Women and Religion (Missoula: The Scholars' Press and the American Academy of Religion, 1974), pp. 167- 75.
18. Ibid., p. 168.
19. Constance F. Parvey, "The Theology and Leadership of Women in the New Testament," in Rosemary Radford Ruether, ed., Religion and Sexism (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974), p. 128.
20. Krister Stendahl, "Enrichment or Threat? When the Eves Come Marching In," in Alice Hageman, ed., Sexist Religion and Women in the Church: No More Silence! (New York: Association Press, 1974), p. 120.
21. Swidler, "Is Sexism a Sign of Decadence in Religion?" p. 171.