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Letter to Women


Sex Roles and the Relation of Power to Gender:

Biblical Narratives

From The Female Experience and the Nature of The Divine
by Judith Ochshorn Published by theIndiana University Press 1981
and reproduced here with the usual permissions

It has been argued that parts of both testaments are radically different in outlook from much of ancient Near Eastern polytheistic literature in their emphasis on the importance of gender in divine-human encounters. Moreover, both testaments are characterized by profound ambivalence toward women as moral or spiritual persons, and both portray female sexuality as sometimes dangerous, sometimes sinful, but, in any event, as an easily recognizable symbol of depravity and idolatry in the human community.

Just as biblical conceptions of the divine as they relate to the significance of gender may be ascertained only from the nature of divine-human interactions, so early monotheistic attitudes toward sex roles and the relation of power to sex may be gauged only by the secular roles designated as appropriate for women and men as their societies interacted with the one, ineffable, nominally asexual God. In conformity with the ambivalence with which women are viewed in their relation to the divine, some of the narratives exhibit a correspondingly deep ambivalence toward the proper roles for women in the community of believers.

Obviously, these views do not appear with unvarying consistency in the Bible, nor are they central to all the books of the Old and New Testaments and the Apocrypha. But there is enough to suggest that biblical writers correlated gender with prescribed roles to a greater extent than did polytheistic literature. And in contrast with the latter, biblical texts are marked by the emergence of a sharper linkage of sex with power and powerlessness, with women suffering more of the last partly as a result of their sexuality and normal biological functioning, even as they are simultaneously shown as essential to the fulfillment of the divine covenant and are portrayed in a variety of roles.

The Old Testament: Women in Leadership Roles

In the Old Testament there are references to women in a number of leadership roles. For example, Athaliah ruled Israel for six years (2 Kings 11:1-3). In the time of the prophet Jeremiah, the prophetess Chuldah was appealed to for advice by the reformer-king Josiah after "a book of the Law," Deuteronomy, was discovered in the temple. Josiah instructs his priest and some of his retinue to approach Chuldah, or "inquire of the Lord for me, and for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found" (2 Kings 22:13). Chuldah transmits the words of the Lord in genuine prophetic fashion and lays the groundwork for Josiah's reforms (2 Kings 13:1-30; 2 Chron. 34:23-33, 35:1-34). She says:

"Thus says the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon this place and upon its inhabitants, all the words of the book which the king of Judah has read. Because they have forsaken me and have burned incense to other gods, that they might provoke me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore my wrath will be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched/' (2 Kings 22:16-17)

But except for this one act of prophecy Chuldah leaves us no other record. It is most curious, because in her own time, as the one who authenticated the word of God, her stature as a prophet apparently exceeded that of Jeremiah

Chuldah was not the only woman to claim prophetic gifts. Isaiah refers to an unnamed prophetess who bears a son and names him as directed by God, relayed through the prophet (Isa. 8:1-4). Both Nehe- miah and Ezekiel mention false prophetesses like Noadiah as members of a group of pretenders and diviners, apparently of both sexes, who led Israel astray (Neh. 6:14; Ezek. 13). In addition, there were some women who practiced magic. After the death of Samuel, King Saul banished "the mediums and the wizards" (1 Sam. 28:3), but he appeals to the witch at Endor, who raises the spirit of Samuel from the dead at Saul's request, to advise him after he loses God's blessing (1 Sam. 28:7-19). And, as already remarked, the prophet Micah names Miriam along with Moses and Aaron as leaders of the Hebrews' exodus from Egypt (Mic. 6:4), even though God treats Miriam differently from Aaron when they both question his judgment.

The Wise Women: Their Autonomy and Anonymity

There are both named and unnamed "wise women" who intercede at critical points in King David's reign with beneficent consequences for the ruler and the community. However, despite their obvious importance, they either are defined by their relationship to men rather than God, or act without autonomy, or remain forever anonymous.

For example, there is Nabal's wife, Abigail, who saves her household and community from slaughter by David's troops when she directly approaches and mollifies the king after her husband refuses to pay him tribute. As David sees it, she also saves him from committing "blood-guiltiness," or murder. Finally summoned to her ultimate re­ward, Abigail becomes one of David's wives after God kills Nabal for his wickedness, and she is described as not only "of good understanding" and intelligent, but beautiful as well (1 Sam. 25). In short, her good judgment and heroic intervention are measured by her relationships with men, not God, and by the nature and status of those men.

Also, there are a few nameless "wise women," and their position relative to men is rather odd. At Joab's instigation, one of them intervenes with David and facilitates the reconciliation of the king and his beloved son Absalom (2 Sam. 14). But she does not act autonomously. She is told what to do and say by Joab, and acts at most as an intermediary between Joab, Absalom, and David:

And Jo'ab sent to Teko'a, and fetched from there a wise woman, and said to her, "Pretend to be a mourner, and put on mourning garments; do not anoint yourself with oil, but behave like a woman who has been mourning many days for the dead; and go to the king, and speak thus to him." So Jo'ab put the words in her mouth. (2 Sam. 2-3)

The other "wise woman" prevents the destruction of an entire settlement by David's general Joab when she arranges instead for the death of the one guilty man who provoked some of the tribes to rebel against the king's authority (2 Sam. 20). However, like the woman who served as Joab's medium, she is not named. This seems most peculiar in a literary work that, in general, meticulously mentions everyone by name who was considered to have played a significant role in the history of Israel and, in particular, mentions the name, and that of his father and tribe, of the man who caused many of the Israelites to turn away from David: "a worthless fellow, whose name was Sheba, the son of Bichri, a Benjaminite" (2 Sam. 20:1). When Sheba flees to her city, and Joab encircles it and lays it under siege, and the woman saves the city by offering Joab Sheba's head (2 Sam. 20:15-22), she is identified merely as "a wise woman called from the city" (2 Sam. 20:16) and "the woman (who) went to all the people in her wisdom" (2 Sam. 20:22).

There are, of course, some notable exceptions to these anonymous women. One is the Queen of Sheba, who comes in pomp and splendor to see for herself whether Solomon's reputation for wisdom is deserved. While she undoubtedly interacts with Solomon on an equal basis and judges him, she is, after all, a foreign queen from an alien culture, which practiced other social customs (1 Kings 10:1-13). But there are some strong Hebrew women as well.

Deborah and Jael

Both Deborah, the prophetess, judge, and liberator of Israel, and Jael, who assumes a temporary though decisive role in a quasi-military capacity, figure in the early, chaotic period, characterized by lawlessness and warfare, in the book of Judges. There is no doubt that Deborah is an authentic judge and charismatic leader of Israel: "Now Deb'orah, a prophetess, the wife of Lap'pidoth, was judging Israel at that time. She used to sit under the palm of Deb'orah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of E'phraim; and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment" (Judg. 4:4-5).

She lived at a time when "the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord" (Judg. 4:1), and consequently the Canaanite king "oppressed the people of Israel cruelly for twenty years," "with nine hundred chariots of iron," so that "the people of Israel cried to the Lord for help" (Judg. 4:3). It is interesting to note that when she is first introduced, it is not only as prophetess and judge but also as the wife of Lapidoth. Needless to add, neither Yabin, the king of Canaan, nor Sisera, the captain of his army, nor Barak, the Israelite general who is also identified as "the son of Abin'oam out of Kedesh-naphtali" (Judg. 4:6), is named as the husband of anyone.

Deborah transmits to Barak God's command to raise an army against the Canaanites, and she promises to deliver Sisera to him. Barak, in turn, fully acknowledges her power: "If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go" (Judg. 4:8). Deborah's response is that the victory will be credited to a woman, not to the Israelite general: "I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sis'era into the hand of a woman" (Judg. 4:9).

At the head of ten thousand men, Barak is accompanied by Deborah and aided by the Lord, who "routed Sisera and all his chariots and all his army before Barak at the edge of the sword" (Judg. 4:15).All the Canaanites are killed and Sisera escapes from the carnage on foot. He comes to the tent of "Jael the wife of Heber and Kenite" (Judg. 4:17) since Heber and the king of Canaan are at peace. She welcomes him, gives him a drink, lets him rest, and when he falls asleep she drives a nail through his head with a hammer and kills him. When Barak arrives in pursuit of Sisera, Jael shows him his corpse (Judg. 4:18-22). "So on that day God subdued Yabin the king of Canaan before the people of Israel" (Judg. 4:23).

In the song celebrating their victory, Deborah and Barak praise God, and she describes her role when depravity ruled in Israel, "when new gods were chosen, when war was in the gates" (Judg. 5:8): "Debo- rah arose as a mother in Israel" (Judg. 5:7). She "mothers" the nation but is not otherwise depicted as a biological mother. And, like Deborah, the slayer of the captain of the Canaanite host and the agent of divine wrath is identified first as a wife, and then her military prowess is hailed:

''Most blessed of women be Ja'el,
the wife of Heber the Ken'ite,
of tent-dwelling women most blessed.
He asked water and she gave him milk,
she brought him curds in a lordly bowl.
She put her hand to the tent peg
and her right hand to the workmen's mallet;
She struck Sis'era a blow, she crushed his head,
she shattered and pierced his temple.
He sank, he fell, he lay still at her feet;
at her feet he sank, he fell;
where he sank, there he fell dead."
(Judg. 5:24-27)

There is no question that Deborah, as prophetess, judge, general, and liberator, and Jael, as fearless victor over Sisera, play rather unusual roles for women. In their assertiveness, acts of physical aggression, influence over the male leaders of Israel, and the subsequent course of historical events, one would have to compare them with foreign and idolatrous queens of Israel like Jezebel. Deborah and Jael are, in fact, prominent for their rarity as strong female leaders and soldiers of Israel, and for the benign results of their forceful leadership for the people of Israel.

The overwhelming majority of Israelite rulers were men. If there never was a queen like David, there was likewise never a female leader famous for her wisdom like Solomon (with countless husbands and male concubines), a female smasher of idolatrous worship like Josiah, a female prophet and judge like Moses, or a female soldier like Joshua. Most of the prophetsand (unlike Chuldah) certainly all those who wrote the books that were later canonized and whose views were therefore most influential and enduring were men. Even on a much lesser scale, women were not seen as possessing a monopoly on magical powers. Wizards as well as witches were banished by Saul, and both are described as possessing "familiar spirits."

The Books of Women


With the exception of the book of Ruth, which features a Moabite woman who, like the Queen of Sheba, is from an alien culture where females might well have played a larger part in social life and cult, the Old Testament and Apocryphal books titled with the names of women either confirm the absence of autonomous power exercised by women or show that power as almost entirely dependent upon their beauty and sexuality. Indeed, in some respects the book of Ruth stands virtually alone, for, as different from the others, the primary affectional relationships portrayed are between women, and the whole narrative hinges on female affiliation.

Ruth chooses to leave her own people and country because of her love for her mother-surrogate, Naomi, and the expression of that love is among the most personal and tender passages in the Old Testament about the feelings of people for each other. As her mother-in-law is about to leave Moab for her own land, Ruth says:

"Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if even death parts me from you." (Ruth 1:16-17)

In comparison with this mother-daughter devotion, there is no special affection ascribed to Ruth's marriage to her first husband, Naomi's deceased son, or for her future husband, Boaz. In fact, Boaz initially treats Ruth kindly because he values her filial affection for his kinswoman Naomi.

Throughout, Ruth does what Naomi tells her to do. She works to support her, marries her kinsman Boaz to continue the name of Naomi's son, and presents Naomi with security and a grandson to nurse in her old age after she suffers the loss of her own husband and two sons:Then the women said to Na'omi, "Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next of kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him." Then Na'omi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. And the women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, "A son has been born to Na'omi." (Ruth 4:14-17)

Ruth provides for Naomi in her old age. Naomi, in turn, provides a husband for her daughter-in-law through the customs of her people, in this case levirate marriage. And Ruth is rewarded for her love for Naomi with status explicitly compared to that held by Leah and Rachel, "who together built up the house of Israel" (Ruth 4:11), for though she bears but one son, he is the grandfather of David (Ruth 4:17). Interestingly, the action in this book is initiated by women; the central result—the birth of David's ancestor—issues from the love of women for each other; and the witnesses and commentators are "the women of the neighborhood."


The book of Esther is quite different in both its content and message and expresses attitudes toward women from a later time, when they apparently were not as autonomous or as highly valued as persons. Although Esther is shown as the savior of the Jews during their exile, all the events in the story—and indeed her success in preventing the extermination of the Jews and enabling their revenge on their enemies—rest on the consequences of female insubordination to husbands and on Esther's beauty, sexuality, and obedience to her cousin and adoptive father, Mordecai. She is at the center of a network of relationships between men, and saves her people in ways acceptable to them.

The book opens with King Ahasuerus deposing his queen, Vashti, after she refuses to appear, at his command, to display her physical charms before him and his royal companions during a marathon drinking bout. The rationale for her fall from power is that Vashti's behavior might set a precedent for the insubordination of the other rulers' wives. Esther is rounded up along with all of the other beautiful young virgins so that a new queen may be chosen, and because of her beauty she supplants Vashti. Following Mordecai's directions, she conceals the fact that she is a Jew. Mordecai meanwhile discovers a plot against the king's life, conveys the information to Esther, and she informs the king that she had this from Mordecai.

Events are set into motion by a rivalry between men, from which Esther is excluded. Haman is elevated to a position of authority second only to the king, and Mordecai is the only one who refuses to pay him proper homage. Haman determines to rid himself of Mordecai and, along with him, all the rest of the Jews. Toward this end, he persuades the king to issue an edict ordering the murder of all the Jews throughout his vast empire.

Though she has nothing whatsoever to do with initiating it, Esther is forced at this point to enter the struggle between the two men, Mordecai and Haman. The former tells Esther that she must plead for her people before the king. When she shows some reluctance, Mordecai threatens her real father's line with extinction. He predicts that the Jews will be saved anyway (presumably by God), but that she will have only a temporary reprieve should she refuse. Under this compulsion, Esther once more obeys Mordecai. She risks her life by appearing before the king unsummoned and, once more, he is so struck by her beauty that he promises to grant her almost any request.

Esther proposes that the king and Haman banquet with her. When she is again asked for her petition, Esther tells the king that she and all her people face death because of Haman. In a fury, the king leaves the table and retreats to the garden to think about this piece of news. In his absence, Haman falls on Queen Esther's couch to beg for his life. The king returns and mistakes the scene for Haman attempting to force himself on the queen sexually. Once again trading with her sexuality, Esther does not contradict his misapprehension, and this seals Haman's fate. He is hanged from the gallows intended for Mordecai, and all the rest of his family is put to death as well. Also, partly because of his prior service to the king but especially because of his relationship to Esther, Mordecai is given a high place in the palace, and together they easily convince the king to cancel the order to exterminate the Jews and to grant them the right to dispose of their enemies.

The moral of the story seems fairly clear. If only they are beautiful enough and obey the orders of their closest male relatives, women can rise to any rank in society, violate accepted conventions, even royal ones, and accomplish almost anything, indeed turn aside royal decrees and save their people. Conversely, even queens like Vashti and Esther risk their positions and their lives if they are insubordinate to their royal husbands, or do not "find favor" in their eyes.


The book of Judith in the Apocrypha adds another dimension to the male perception of the power of female beauty and sexuality. The Assyrian King Nebuchadnezzar sends a tremendous army against all the peoples in Western Asia who refuse to surrender to his dominion and pay him tribute. His greatest general, Holofernes, conquers and plunders everything in the line of his march until he reaches Judea in Canaan, where he threatens the Hebrews and the new temple they had erected to God after their return from captivity. The Hebrews face more than 170,000 infantry and 12,000 cavalry with nothing to oppose the Assyrian onslaught but their faith in God and their control of the narrow mountain passes. When their water supply is cut off, their leaders in effect give God five days to save them or they will surrender.

At this juncture, pious, wise, rich, widowed, and beautiful Judith makes her appearance. She castigates the Hebrews for pretending to know God's intentions and for testing God when, in fact, the reverse was usually the case, and announces that she is "about to do a thing which will go down through all generations of our descendants," and that "the Lord will deliver Israel by my hand" (Jth. 8:32-33). After the elders leave, Judith prays to God and pleads that "through the deceit of my lips" their enemies might be crushed by "the hand of a woman" (Jth. 9:10-11).

Then she returns home, removes her widow's weeds, bathes and anoints herself, puts on her most gorgeous clothing and jewelry, "and made herself very beautiful, to entice the eyes of all men who might see her" (Jth. 10:4). When the elders of the city see her, they respond not to her piety or daring but to her physical appearance: they "noted how her face was altered and her clothing changed, they greatly admired her beauty, and said to her, 'May the God of our fathers grant you favor and fulfill your plans, that the people of Israel may glory and Jerusalem may be exalted.' And she worshipped God" (Jth. 10:7-8).

Judith and her maid descend to the Assyrian camp. The patrols, taken in by her beauty, believe her fabrication that she has left her people to avoid capture and her offer to show their commander how to capture the Hebrews without losing a life, and they escort her to the tent of Holofernes. While she waits for an audience with him, his men:

marveled at her beauty, and admired the Israelites, judging them by her, and everyone said to his neighbor, "Who can despise these people, who have women like this among them? Surely not a man of them had better be left alive, for if we let them go they will be able to ensnare the whole world!" . . . when Judith came into the presence of Holofernes and his servants, they all marveled at the beauty of her face. (Jth. 10:19, 23)

Judith tells Holofernes that his siege has forced the Hebrews to sin by eating things forbidden to them by God. She offers to stay with them, claims foreknowledge of when the Hebrews will transgress, predicts that on that day God will abandon the Israelites and hand them over to their enemies, and promises to lead Holofernes in triumph through Judea and place him on the throne in Jerusalem. Holofernes replies that God chose well to send a messenger like Judith to help the Assyrians defeat the Hebrews. He calls her as wise as she is beautiful, promises to adopt her God as his own if she keeps her word, and predicts that she will live in Nebuchadnezzar's palace and be famous throughout the world (Jth. 11:22-23).

Several days later, Holofernes is overcome with desire for her and has her brought to him during a feast for his slaves. He drinks a great deal, becomes intoxicated, and after everyone leaves Judith remains alone with him in his tent. While he is in a drunken stupor, she tells God that she is acting "for the exaltation of Jerusalem" (Jth. 13:14), and she cuts off his head. She and her maid return to the Israelites. Judith shows them the commander's head, tells them the whole story, and declares, "it was my face that tricked him to his destruction" (Jth. 14:16).

Holofernes' head is displayed on the parapets of Judea, and the mighty Assyrian invaders retreat in confusion. The Israelites attack, outflank, destroy, and plunder them, and Judith is honored as a hero­ine of Israel. She shares this honor with the other women, and in a song of thanksgiving to God, Judith says:

But the Lord Almighty has foiled them by the hand of a woman.
For their mighty one did not fall by the hands of the young men,
nor did the sons of the Titans smite him,
nor did tall giants set upon him;
but Judith the daughter of Merari undid him
with the beauty of her countenance. (Jth. 16:6-7)

After a period of worship and general rejoicing, the people return home. Judith refuses many offers of marriage and is revered to the end of her long life.

The Moral

Again, as in the case of Esther, a woman risks her life to save her people, and, although she acts on her own, Judith too is identified through her relations with men, as a widow and daughter. Like Esther, and unlike Deborah and Jael, her success depends on her physical beauty. She literally and single-handedly ravishes the Assyrian war machine to defeat. Only added to her beauty are many other virtues —piety, wisdom, wealth, courage. There is still another, for after the death of her husband she remains chaste and faithful to his memory, or the very paradigm of a monogamous wife.

And that is just the point. The great male heroes of Israel exhibit their courage and save their people by relying on God rather than their physical beauty and sexuality. While Esther and Judith are also courageous and pious, it is their beauty and sexuality alone which guarantee their triumph over the enemies of Israel. Furthermore, while Esther's obedience to her uncle and Judith's faithfulness to her deceased hus- band only serve to enhance their virtue, the virtue of men is not likewise defined by their obedience to women or their fidelity to wives, either living or dead. Moreover, among a people ever conscious of God's covenant with the patriarchs, in which the divine promise is to multiply greatly the seed of the Israelites until they become a great nation, what is strangely omitted from the stories of Esther and Judith are any allusions to their capacity for motherhood, as though heroism in women, in some fashion, precludes maternity. By implication, then, those women who saved their people by their heroism occupy a status only peripheral to the fulfillment of the divine covenant, since they are shown as contributing to the conservation rather than enlargement of Israel.

Virtue in Women, Virtue in Men

This nonmaternal motif is repeated in the concluding chapter of Proverbs, which describes a virtuous woman as wife not mother (Prov. 31:10-31). It is rather remarkable on several counts. Besides the self- description of Wisdom, Proverbs is addressed almost entirely to men. The final section describes the advantages accruing to men from the possession of a virtuous wife and delineates the meaning of virtue along sexual lines. While virtue in men is seen as achieved by the pursuit of wisdom, adherence to divine commandments, and avoidance of all the temptations to moral transgression—i.e., virtue is accessible to men across a fairly broad spectrum of behavior rooted in moral choices—the path to virtue for women is more restricted and flows out of their roles as wives.

Though her children are mentioned fleetingly, and she undoubtedly was expected to produce heirs for her husband, it seems significant that the virtuous wife is for the most part described and exalted primarily in her role as economic producer. And it is a mighty role indeed, for both the survival and prosperity of her husband and family depend on her economic labors. (Incidentally, this conforms to much of what is known about the major roles of most women in families in historic times. It appears that they contributed indispensable economic labor as household producers and managers of domestic industries essential to life, in addition to any other work they may have done. Their roles as mothers, while vital, were not seen as consuming all of their energies and intelligence by any means and may have been perceived as almost secondary once offspring were produced.)

In addition to working from the middle of one night to the middle of the next while her husband is "known in the gates, when he sits among the elders of the land," she is lauded for contributing to his "gain," "does him good and not harm, all the days of her life" (and nothing is said about his treatment of her), and is described as dispens­ing charity, showing fearlessness even in the face of "the times to come," or the last days, has good business sense, and works with "strength," "dignity," "wisdom" and "kindness." The last thing she would (or could) do, apparently, was "eat the bread of idleness."

She is "blessed" if she exhibits all these traits. Her "praise" for these monumental labors is given divine sanction by cleverly linking her prescribed role to her fear of God, or her domestic work is viewed as a sign of her piety and acceptance of the divine ordering of exis­tence. And her reward is that "her works praise her in the gates" of the city, or win her approval from the men and "elders of the land" who congregate there.

Thus, her domain as virtuous woman or virtuous wife, for they are synonymous—the exercise of her judgment and authority, the concerns of all her waking hours (and they are many), the requirements of her virtue itself—is circumscribed by the material and physical world in which she productively labors. She certainly does not have time to sit "in the gates" with the male elders to dispute, praise, or blame, nor would she receive praise if she did. She herself becomes an object of praise or blame. She is rewarded by the favorable judgment of the men in the gates if she industriously fulfills her economic role, and presumably would be punished by the withdrawal of praise if she chose to occupy her time otherwise.

By way of contrast, the domain of men is the rest of the world. Their concerns revolve around how to achieve righteousness through following the teachings of wisdom, how to make difficult moral choices, and how to preserve themselves from moral corruption, sometimes embodied in Proverbs as sexual women.

The wife's labor for her husband and household is emphasized, with a curious silence about any feelings she might have as mother to her own children, although if she were barren it would be her greatest disability. In short, the physical world is where wives exercise their virtue, and the moral world becomes reserved for their fathers, hus­bands, and sons, who are released from the time-consuming domestic obligations of material and menial work by the exertions of their virtuous daughters, wives, and mothers. This division of labor on earth recalls the reason for the creation of humanity by divinities of the Sumerian and Babylonian pantheons. People were to perform all the physical and menial labor and thus relieve goddesses and gods of the necessity to do it themselves. But whereas in polytheistic creation-stories such work was assigned to persons irrespective of sex, in Proverbs it seems to fall within the sphere of women alone.

Gender and the Domain of Moral Judgment

Furthermore, a curious shift in focus may be noted. While goddesses were hardly viewed exclusively as cosmic mothers any more than gods were portrayed only as cosmic fathers, and both usually had other important functions as well, the ancient polytheistic reverence for femaleness, personified and deified as the source of life and fertility or seen as importantly involved in the creation and reproduction of life along with male divinities, gives way to the image of an asexual deity as the source of life, nature, and moral law. In the absence of any female involvement, the secular corollary of this image in Proverbs is a greater reverence shown to mortal women as economic producers than as producers of life, thereby discounting the one thing only women can do, and an assumption of the domain of moral judgment by men.

In like fashion, the ancient polytheistic reverence for femaleness in its chthonic aspect, in the form of goddesses receiving the dead back into the womb of the earth or as sitting in judgment of the dead along with male divinities, is supplanted by the biblical view of the final judgment of people after death, or at the end of human history, as presided over by a nominally asexual deity who is represented as making different moral judgments on the basis of sex in his interactions with the human community. And in the process of judging women, the measure of their righteousness or virtue might very well have depended on the extent to which they conformed to their sexually prescribed economic roles, or confined themselves to the business of the material world, as determined by God and interpreted by men.

Honor in Women, Honor in Men

However, the emphasis on the nonmaternal contributions of women is only one facet of a deep ambivalence toward appropriate roles for women, for simultaneous with the highest value assigned to their eco- nomic labor as virtuous wives was the premium that came to be placed on their roles as mothers or, more properly, reproducers. The concept of honor itself seems to have been different for women than men. For the latter, honor was often thought of as synonymous with the possession of property or wealth, which in ancient Israel belonged to men, and it was also equated with strength or valor.(1)

Deborah and Jael are among the strongest and most valorous women in the Old Testament. But they are really anachronisms from an older period, dating from a time before the almost total masculinization of ritual, which was marked by the interdiction of the "holy men" and "holy women" of the temple, the suppression of the cult of women mourning the dying god Tammuz, and the elimination of the sacred sexual cults appropriated from Canaanite worship (2 Kings 23:4-16, 19-20, 24; 2 Chron. 34:2-7). In other words, the honor of Deborah and Jael is described in the same way as that of men at a time when women still apparently played an important role in cult.

By the exilic and postexilic eras, close to when the Old Testament was set in its final form, the concept of honor for women had changed considerably and was seen as available to them only through marriage and motherhood. (This is especially ironic since, according to Jewish law, propagation is obligatory for the man but not for the woman.) In his seminal work on ancient Israel, for example, Pedersen writes:

The honor of a woman is to bear a man's name through marriage. If she does not obtain this, she is dishonoured (Isaiah, 4:1). And her honour as a wife she only maintains by multiplying and continuing the name of her husband through posterity. As a mother the woman is honoured; childlessness is a shame which she can hardly survive. Only when Rachel gives birth to a son, is she able to say: God has taken away my shame (Genesis, 30:23). Hannah is so bowed down by her childlessness that she nearly dies with shame. The woman who gives birth to a son no longer needs to be afraid; she has fulfilled her task, her soul has acquired merit (1 Samuel, 4:20). Jerusalem is sometimes called a childless widow, when its state of deepest degradation is to be characterized. A childless widow is entirely destitute of honour and has no great hope of acquiring any. And still less honour has perhaps the woman who has been repudiated by her husband, because she could not fulfill her task of supplying him with children. ... To bear a man's name and to increase it is the honour of the woman. The dishonoured virgin is bowed down with shame, because she has been taken by the man without his giving her a name. And the faithless wife degrades herself and sins against her own soul, because she has given it to her husband and takes her name from him, while at the same time giving herself to another, whose name she does not bear (cf. Hosea, 2:7)

This notion of honor in women as deriving totally from their relationships with their husbands, in which the wives provide for them, is consistent with the portrait of the virtuous wife in Proverbs and of Sarah's relationship with Abraham. Its importance for understanding the roles of Old Testament women is that it establishes a sexual hierarchy of access to the divine. Women achieve their highest honor through their relationships with their husbands, by providing them with children. Their husbands, in turn, achieve their highest honor through their relationships with God, by participating in sacred rites.

Other Views of Women As Mothers, and Some Problems

The equation of honor with motherhood for women has prompted a number of recent writers to reinterpret or explain the respective roles of the sexes in the Old Testament from a somewhat new perspective, which challenges the more traditional belief that ancient Israel was overwhelmingly patriarchal in structure. These theories range from a contention that those sex roles were substantively complementary but equal, to an argument that women as mothers were regarded as superior to men, to an explanation of the restriction of women's most important roles to the domestic and reproductive spheres as having been necessitated by historical events rather than having originated in the biblical vision of the divine-human relationship. All of these speculations share a common assumption, namely that divine sanction of different roles assigned to people on the basis of their sex in no way alters or diminishes the concern for righteousness and justice attributed to God.

For instance, in an essay on the images of women in the Old Testament, Phyllis Bird maintains that the varying, sometimes ambiguous, even contradictory, portrayals of women, all drawn from the male point of view, may be joined by understanding woman's role, in relation to man, as "a helper, whose work as wife and mother is essential and complementary to his own. In a sense she completes him—but as one with a life and character of her own. She is his opposite and equal." (3)

Bird finds substantiation for this in her reading of the story of creation:

While the two creation accounts of Genesis differ markedly in language, style, date and traditions employed, their statements about woman are essentially the same: woman is, along with man, the direct and intentional creation of God and the crown of his creation. Man and woman were made for each other. Together they constitute humankind, which is in its full and essential nature bisexual.(4)

Though Bird recognizes that "Israel rarely lived up to this vision," (5) she believes that "male-dominated language and structures disguised to a considerable degree the actual power, freedom and respect of women in the society—respect based largely, though not solely, upon complementarity of roles."(6) And again, "Israel's best statements about woman recognize her as an equal with man, and with him jointly responsible to God and to cohumanity."(7)

However, Bird's own account of women's restricted and inferior roles in Israel, measured by economic criteria, legal status, and participation in cult, and the frequent depiction of women as adjuncts to men in a document written exclusively by men, focusing mostly on male activities in a male-dominant society,(8) are all difficult to reconcile with her description of the "power," "freedom," and "respect" supposedly accorded to women at the same time, or with her conclusion that the Old Testament considers women "equal" to men. Also, it seems somehow inappropriate to evaluate ancient Israel's statements as "best" or worst from the vantage of our own times, or to refer to its "vision" as if it were a thing apart from its concrete expression in the Bible.

God's intentionality in creating both man and woman says nothing about their creation in equality, and "helper" to man means just that. That "humankind" includes both sexes is of course self-evident, but woman was made for man; they were not "made for each other." In fact, the very notion of "complementarity" would seem to underscore the extent to which men's sphere in life was exclusionary of women.

This last is perhaps most significant because men's world of cult, war, honor, governance, moral choice, and proprietorship of the promised land, or the cluster of human activities that together formed the content of the divine-human covenant, were viewed as infinitely more important than the roles occupied by women. For if the latter's primary function and honor came to reside in "building up the houses" of their men, it must be seen that women as reproducers are shown in many biblical narratives as fairly interchangeable in perpetuating the male line—e.g., Hagar for Sarah, Lot's daughters for his wife, Leah for Rachel, the anonymous virgins of Jabeshgilead and Shiloh for the lost wives of the Benjaminites.

Moreover, motherhood conferred no special rights on women. In the midst of a difficult delivery just before Rachel was to die in childbirth, the midwife says to her: "Fear not: for now you will have another son" (Gen. 35:17). Rachel is deprived even of the right to name the son who is to cost her her life. As she lay dying, she called him Benoni, but his father named him Benjamin (Gen. 35:18), or "the son of my old age."

Likewise, the all-important initial division of the land of Canaan, promised by God under the covenant with Abraham to him and his posterity, involved only the adult males of the tribes that left Egypt with Moses. The latter and Eleazar, son of the priest Aaron, are instructed by God to take a census of Israel, including all those over twenty years of age, counted by membership in their "fathers' houses .. . who are able to go forth to war" (Num. 26:2). This census excludes women, for the rest of the chapter enumerates all the sons of their fathers, and God orders the distribution of the land according to the size of the families of these sons (Num. 26:52-56).

Thus, women are included as settlers in the promised land or share in the fulfillment of the divine covenant not in a direct fashion but by virtue of their relationships to men as wives, mothers, and daughters. And though their roles as mothers must have been highly valued then, since the size of land allotments was proportionate to their fecundity, as reproducers they remain anonymous. Yet again, in a chapter that carefully names the men and their tribes, the anonymity of the women is telling and perhaps symbolic of their indirect relation to God.

Carol Meyers sees the movement toward constricting the roles of women to the domestic arena and motherhood as an outgrowth of the need to maintain the population level at a time when epidemics, high infant and maternal mortality, and a scarcity of women of childbearing age all precipitated a demographic crisis in Israel by the end of the Bronze Age.(9) John Otwell extends this thesis a bit further by arguing that the incorporation of woman's identity into that of her father or husband, who then represented the family unit in its dealings with the rest of the community, was more than compensated for by the mother's crucial role in providing for the survival of the group in the face of disease, famine, and constant warfare. (10)

Otwell surmises that God's promise to the Hebrews in the covenant, namely that they would survive as a people in exchange for the fidelity of Israel to his worship, made them see all new life as a consequence of divine intervention, or woman as reproducer was seen as:

a primary locus of divine activity. Her fecundity was a basic evidence of divine care for Israel. Motherhood thus was not only a biological and sociological function. It was a sacred act of great magnitude which only the woman could perform. The very high esteem in which the mother was held was then described, especially as it is reflected in similes of God's care for Israel and of God's judgment upon Israel.

No higher status could be given anyone than was given the mother in ancient Israel. (11)

There are several problems inherent in both of these approaches. With regard to the last, the obvious reality is that the survival of the group was guaranteed by the reproduction of women in all cultures, those which worshiped Yahweh and those which did not. Further, regardless of whether or not the Israelites attributed pregnancy to divine intervention, there is evidence that they also knew about more

mundane causes and the participation of men in reproduction, e.g., as in the pregnancies of Hagar, Leah, Rachel, Tamar, Bathsheba, Ruth. In addition, women who were also mothers seem to have held higher positions in cult and public life in some of the polytheistic cultures surrounding Israel that shared the monotheistic belief in a divine source of fertility.

Therefore, factors other than a reverence for motherhood alone or a belief in divine intervention in the creation of new life were apparently responsible for the radical elevation of the importance of gender as the basis of largely segregated roles in the Old Testament. Moreover, women were not only indispensable as mothers but, as has been seen, also highly honored as economic producers. In any event, the fact that they were highly honored in either or both of these roles would hardly and in itself explain their subordination to men in cult, war, t^e family, and under the law.

Adverse social conditions due to military conflicts, plagues, and a high incidence of infant and maternal mortality were by no means unique to the end of the second millennium or to ancient Israel. Those same afflictions existed in many societies in varying degrees through- out recorded human history. Hence, one would have to look at com- plex political, social, economic, and ideological factors in addition to the need to replenish the population in order to explain why, for instance, women's roles were not as restricted in other times and places that had like population requirements.

To cite but two of many possible examples, the Homeric tradition dating from the late Bronze Age describes warrior societies with simi- lar needs for population replacement within which some women— Clitemnestra, Helen, the mothers of Nausicaa and Andromache— exercised considerable power and autonomy apart from their roles as mothers. Later, in ancient Sparta, the status of women as compared with men was quite high even while both sexes were required either to serve as warriors or to breed them for the state. Within the limits of motherhood, or the provision of an adequate supply of soldiers or reproducers of soldiers, Spartan women apparently enjoyed at least as much personal and sexual freedom as men, were not burdened with legal prescriptions of their inferiority, did not suffer cultic deprivations because of their sex, and lived in a culture where male rather than female infanticide was practiced. Indeed, before the demise of Sparta as a great city-state, and even in the midst of a critical decline in population, Spartan women not only seem to have enjoyed a fair amount of economic independence but also apparently had some con- trol over their own reproduction.

In other words, as compared with polytheistic societies of approximately the same period, motherhood among the Israelites did not in itself always confer high status in social life or cult, and the emphasis on virtue or honor in women as contingent on the fulfillment of either their economic or maternal roles cannot be explained merely by the pressing need for a larger population. In contrast with the individualized representations of the great male leaders of Israel, the very inter-changeability and anonymity of some of the women honored in their maternal roles reflect the lesser status accorded to those roles.

Attitudes toward Women under Divine Laws

Furthermore, it may be that it was precisely in their roles within the family—as wives and mothers, as sexual females, and in their normal biological functioning as reproducers of the social group—that women were treated most punitively, even as they were prized for their economic labors or came to be honored most for their motherhood; here the full force and depth of the ambivalence toward women becomes visible. Unlike the polytheistic attitude toward sexuality, and particularly female sexuality, as not only natural but also the source of social good, with rare exceptions like the Song of Songs, there is in the Bible a pervasively pejorative attitude toward sexual females that almost borders on the obsessive.

However, before examining the evidence for this, it should be reemphasized that a broad-scale comparison of the position of women under the civil laws of polytheistic societies and the biblical laws of the Pentateuch, presumably emanating from Yahweh, is neither intended nor appropriate here. Rather, within the very limited context of determining the extent to which ancient Israelite women were especially honored for their motherhood (as Otwell contends), or the extent to which wifehood and motherhood conferred complementary but equal status for women as compared to men (as Bird maintains), it is necessary to look at those biblical laws that directly bear on the status of women as wives and mothers. Since the capacity for motherhood rests on female sexuality and normal biological functions, it seems appropriate to consider biblical attitudes toward those aspects as well. Furthermore, it is important to recall that, unlike the civil statutes that governed relations between the sexes in polytheistic cultures, biblical laws were represented as universal moral laws of divine origin and therefore imply some assessment of women and men as moral beings as they participate in the divine covenant.

Under divine law, the differences between the rights of women and men seem to be predicated solely on sexual differences. The unifying thread running through women's legal status with regard to property rights, inheritance, influence within the family, control over their own bodies, access to divorce and the like, is the view of ancient Hebraic law, presented as divine commands, that women as members of their sex had fewer rights and less protection under those laws than men. The thrust of the law's concern is for the rights, honor, and welfare of men as husbands or fathers.

Woman As Wife

For example, women were at an enormous disadvantage within the type of monogamous relationship laid out for them by God. A jealous husband had inordinate power over his wife, whether she committed adultery or whether she did not (Num. 5:12-14). Not only was the procedure the same in either case, but there were no comparable rights for the wife who either knew her husband committed adultery or was jealous simply because she thought he had.

The divinely ordained trial by ordeal was used only for the wife. In a society that countenanced polygamy and, from the male perspective, an easy coexistence of wives and concubines within one man's household, it comes as no surprise that adultery committed by wives would be harshly punished. But there are several other elements in this test of female monogamy that seem so excessively punitive to married women that the latter can be seen only as victims.

On the most superficial level, of course, while wives could commit adultery that affected their own husbands, the latter could commit adultery that affected only other women's husbands. Far more vindictive was the divine edict that wives should be subjected to what must have been a fairly public and humiliating trial by ordeal, involving rather horrible and anxiety-producing rituals, literally executed by a male priest, not only for the commission of adultery but even if their husbands merely suspected it (Num. 5:11-30).

Perhaps the most revealing part of the process, in terms of what it denotes about the utterly powerless position of the woman relative to her husband in marriage, is the conclusion. If the wife was found guilty, her belly would swell, her thigh would rot and fall off, and she would become a curse among her people (Num. 5:27). However, whether the woman was found innocent or guilty, "the man shall be free from iniquity, but the woman shall bear her iniquity" (Num. 5:31). In addition, if she was found innocent, the wife's powerlessness was highlighted by the priestly promise that she would "conceive children" or be impregnated by the very husband who submitted her to that awful trial in the first place.

If there was little equality between wives and husbands under divine law, and if the woman was at the mercy of her husband's caprice while married, it was likewise his unilateral right to divorce her if "she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her" (Deut. 24:1). While one school of later rabbinic commentators translated "some indecency" to mean unchastity in the wife, another maintained that it signified any kind of indecency. In any case, the right to divorce, and very likely the determination of what was "indecent," appears clearly to have been only the husband's prerogative. There is no reference to any sort of protection for the wife in these circumstances, even from her own family. There is no reciprocal right of the wife to test the truth of her husband's allegations by subjecting him to a public and noxious trial by ordeal. In the context of married women's lack of power or autonomy in relation to their husbands under the law, it seems most probable that the husband might define anything not to his liking in his wife as "indecent."

Again, in light of the concern expressed by God in Deuteronomy for the "hired servant," "the poor man," "the sojourner," "the fatherless," and "the widow" (Deut. 24:12-22), and the divine admonitions to care for their needs and not oppress them, it seems at the least anomalous that the situation of married women was not seen as oppressive. But once more, the key question is, "oppressive to whom?" and it apparently was not so to the husbands or men who wrote the books.

It is likewise anomalous that one finds in our own century scholarly comments on biblical texts like the following:

'It is astonishing to find how many of the laws—especially in the greathearted Book of Deuteronomy—are expressly designed to protect the interests of the impoverished and defenceless members of society' (McFayden). 'No other system of jurisprudence in any country at any period is marked by such humanity in respect to the unfortunate' (Houghton). The stranger, fatherless, and widow should be treated with a generous perception of the peculiar difficulties of their lot. Care for them is characteristic of Jewish civilization generally, whether in ancient, medieval, or modern times. (12)

That married women—victims of trials by ordeal simply because "the spirit of jealousy" seized their husbands, like a fit, or subjected to instant divorce by their husbands who found them "indecent"—are in our own time excluded from the class of the "defenceless" and "unfortunate" would seem to indicate a strong tradition of continuity with the biblical view that women as wives could not be deprived, and certainly were not victimized, by their position under the law or under their husbands' "authority" (Num. 5:19-20). In fulfilling what was seen as their divinely ordained roles within the family as virtuous wives, women truly do not fall within the purview of divine sympathy for the unfortunate, and indeed earn praise for their performance in these roles.

To question the justice afforded women in their roles as virtuous wives might imply that God is less righteous to women than to men. Indeed, the former inhabit an existential space that is only marginal in its relation to those whose sufferings elicit God's compassion. It is the widow, not the wife, who must not be oppressed and whose special needs must be met, as though marriage itself in extraordinary fashion exempted women from oppression or having special unmet needs. And as members of a sex seen as somehow less moral than men, and never shown as experiencing the moral torments of a Job or an Abraham, from the vantage of male biblical writers even the pain of women is seen as somehow of lesser magnitude than that of men. Portrayed as preoccupied with the material and economically productive tasks in a religious universe dominated by moral issues, the lives of women as virtuous wives or mothers emerge as merely auxiliary to those large issues, and their suffering is both minimized and trivialized.

With the terrain of the rulers, prophets, sages, warriors, and priests largely off-limits to most biblical women, it is not too difficult to see why their more constricted roles in marriage as compared with those of their husbands—especially when these narrower confines were validated by divine commands—did not in themselves constitute pressing moral issues to the male authors of the Bible and to later biblical commentators. The nature of the relationship between God and his people is, moreover, clarified as one between males, when God says, after he had led the Israelites out of Egypt:

"All the commandment which I command you this day you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land which the Lord swore to give your fathers. . . . Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you." (Deut. 8:1,5)

The Chastity of Women

The masculine imagery that cloaks the relationship of God and Israel is enhanced by the manner in which disputes over the chastity of newly married women were settled by men. If a husband charged his wife with not being a virgin at marriage, her parents had the responsibility of displaying the proofs of her virginity (presumably bloody bed-coverings) to the male elders of the city. If the proof of her chastity was convincing, the elders "chastise" the husband and compel him to pay a monetary fine to the father, "because he has brought an evil name upon a virgin of Israel" (Deut. 22:19). The falsely accused wife must not only return to that loving husband who has publicly charged her with unchastity, and been whipped and fined on her account, but just as "he may not put her away all his days" (Deut. 22:19), so she must live all her days with a man who suspected her and was punished because of her.

If persuasive enough evidence of her prior virginity was not forthcoming, the alternative provided by God to this state of wedded bliss for the wife was:

"then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father's house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has wrought folly in Israel by playing the harlot in her father's house; so you shall purge the evil from the midst of you." (Deut. 22:21)

With the high value placed on the virginity and monogamy of women to assure legitimate heirs for men, the disparity in the punishment assigned by God for the false public accusation of the wife by the husband on the one hand, and the sexual activity of the betrothed woman on the other, is as striking as the two awful and only alternatives the wife was faced with, both stemming from her husband's initiative. She was consigned either to a lifelong marriage with a probably hostile husband or to death.

The central concern, it would seem, was for the honor of the husband and the father, since the latter was compensated for a false accusation. The woman occupied a peripheral status in the contest between the two men. Her future (or her lack of a future) was determined by its outcome, and for her either result must have been horrendous. Indeed, the position of the wife was utterly powerless and passive, while the husband, father, and the elders of the city contended among themselves to judge, exonerate, or condemn her. In sum, she became an object to be acted upon in a process of adjudication she neither helped to establish nor participated in. On another level, she almost served as the embodiment of the community's sin, not unlike the ancient use of scapegoats either animal or human. And her suffering served also as a potent warning to other women, and as a means of socializing them to compliance with male law.

Female Sexuality

When women move outside of the confines of monogamous marriage in a sexual way, as, of course, men like David and Solomon did, or attempt to escape the absolute power of husbands or fathers within the family and behave with some autonomy in terms of their sexuality, whether Hebrew or alien they are shown as either powerless, anonymous, or sexual predators. For example, the Egyptian Potiphar's wife (otherwise unnamed) tries unsuccessfully to seduce Joseph (Gen. 39:1-20). While she becomes the unwitting vehicle for his incarceration, subsequent interpretation of the Pharaoh's dream, and ascendance to high rank in the palace, she is in no way responsible for his talents. Joseph was interpreting his own dreams while he was still a shepherd with his brothers in Canaan, and it was one of the things that made his brothers hate him and sell him into slavery (Gen. 37:5-9). The woman is shown as sexually aggressive, dangerous to Joseph in a mindless sort of way, and a liar, but she is ultimately powerless to affect his destiny in any way. Lacking even a name to corroborate her existence as an individual, she is, in fact, objectified as a test of Joseph's virtue.

In the book of Proverbs, men are specifically warned against the danger of seduction by wicked women, particularly those who "belong" to other men, if they intend to live righteously. It is noteworthy that there are no comparable warnings to women to beware of seduction by married men, possibly because the advice and warnings are issued by Solomon to his "sons," more likely because the preservation of male righteousness took precedence over the righteousness of women. Female sexuality outside of monogamous marriage was viewed as a defilement of God's laws and a threat to men's virtue. Women are portrayed as sexual predators and men as their innocent victims, and their involvement with women who would sexually divert them from righteousness can only lead men to their death. While Wisdom as a feminine abstraction is revered, the imagery confined to real women is starkly misogynistic and reveals a deep fear of their sexuality.

The adulterous woman lurks in dark corners, ready to pounce on her innocent victims like the evil spirits of ancient Babylon. She is described as a "loose woman," an "adventuress" who flatters, cajoles, and seduces her "simple" young prey with "smooth words." She is "loud," "wayward," dressed as "a harlot," and "her feet do not stay at home"—the very opposite of a pliant, submissive wife. With her "seductive speech" she "persuades" and "compels" her young man to follow her, "as an ox goes to slaughter" (and this does not say much for the self-control or good sense of the young man). Beyond her adultery, the overarching images are of the woman as overtly sexual, sexually aggressive, and sexually predatory; of the young man as her victim; and of the inevitable association of female seductiveness and sexuality with death (Prov. 6:29, 7:4-13, 18-19, 21-23, 25-27).


It is perhaps in the narratives and laws that deal with the sexual assault of women that the clearest statement of their power relative to men may be found. While they do not differ substantively from the accounts of Lot's attitudes toward his daughters in Genesis or those of the Levite toward his concubine in Judges, their appearance in episodes of the settlement of the promised land under the divine covenant, in the behavior of the first great king of Israel, and in the body of divine laws in the Pentateuch, all enhance the force of their message about the lack of divine protection from unprovoked violence directed against women. Taken together, the sexual oppression of women, and the extent to which it was not recognized as especially oppressive by men, provide a sort of benchmark for measuring the elevation of gender in ancient Israel as a divinely mandated sign of power or powerlessness.

In fulfillment of the divine covenant, Jacob buys land and settles in Canaan. When his daughter Dinah is raped by Schechem, a Canaanite prince, her brothers Simeon and Levi avenge her by first pretending friendship with her rapist and his kin, and then by killing Schechem, his father, and all the men of their city after they are weakened by circumcision. They loot the city, capture the women and children, and remove Dinah from Schechem's house. Jacob's reaction to his sons' revenge for his daughter's rape articulates a new point of view, different from the strong sister-brother bond characteristic of many Near Eastern polytheistic myths, and in this new view the fate of the woman barely figures, except for her implicit inclusion as part of her father's "household." Jacob says to his sons: "You have brought trouble on me by making me odious to the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Per'izzites; my numbers are few, and if they gather themselves against me and attack me, I shall be destroyed, both I and my household" (Gen. 34:30). Simeon and Levi reply: "Should he treat our sister as a harlot?" (Gen. 34:31). In an interesting footnote to this dialogue, a modern biblical scholar remarks: "Jacob has been criticized for merely rebuking his sons because their actions might cause him personal danger, and not pointing out the heinous crime they had done in taking advantage of the helplessness of men with whom they had made a pact of friendship." (13) However, on his deathbed, Jacob curses his sons' "fierce anger" and "cruel wrath."

One can hardly distinguish here between the attitudes toward women in biblical times expressed by Jacob and the attitudes toward women in our own time expressed by biblical scholars. Is the rape of a woman not a "heinous crime," and was Dinah not also helpless? Do the friendships and pacts among men assume greater moral weight than sexual violence committed against women? Is the sense of outrage over the rape of Dinah insufficient provocation for her brothers' anger? Are the lives and integrity of women dispensable and subordinate to the alliances among men?

Likewise, when King David learns that his son Amnon had raped his sister Tamar, "he was very angry" (2 Sam. 13:21), but David did not punish the rapist. Fully two years later, when Amnon was killed by his brother Absalom to avenge the rape of their sister, Absalom fled from the city and remained away for three years, fearing reprisals from his father. And the intensity of David's longings for his absent son were far greater than his displeasure over the rape of his daughter (2 Sam. 13).

In the provision of penalties for adultery and rape commanded by God, it would seem that the greatest concern was shown for the men involved and the least for the women. There is scant reference to any reciprocity or equality of punishment for both sexes, and one can only conclude that the welfare of women was close to the bottom of the scale of religious and social priorities in ancient Israel.

Under divine law, if a man had intercourse with a married woman, the penalty for both was death. That was considered adultery, in both cases committed against the woman's husband. However, both the transgression and the penalties were different when an unmarried woman had intercourse with a married man. Since the latter had access to more than one wife as well as concubines (and, in any case, one's "property" did not require sexual fidelity, and only the woman had to be monogamous), a man could not, by definition, commit adultery in relation to a woman but only in relation to a woman's husband. Therefore, the punishment for such a sexual liaison, freely entered into by the woman and man, would probably have fallen on the woman alone, not for adultery but for harlotry.

If a man raped a betrothed virgin, the penalty for the woman and man did not depend on the crime but on its location. If it took place in the city where she could be heard, and she did not cry out, they were both to be put to death, he not for having raped the "bethrothed virgin," but "because he violated his neighbor's wife" (Deut. 22:23- 24), and she, presumably, for having committed adultery, since a betrothal was considered sexually binding on a woman.

However, this law apparently ignored the violent nature of rape itself. Faced with probable punishment for his act of violence against the woman as "his neighbor's wife," the man might well have forcibly prevented her from making an "outcry," and she would still have been condemned and punished. That it is rape that is being discussed, and not a mutually congenial sexual act, is made clear in the very next verses. If the rape occurred outside the city where no one could hear her outcry, the man was to die and the betrothed virgin was to go free. She was to be absolved from sin and the legal consequences of sin (Deut. 22:25-27), even though she was not its perpetrator but its victim. Indeed, it is hard to comprehend what sin she was absolved from except that of coming to her betrothed husband as an unchaste woman.

If a man raped a virgin who was not betrothed, then he had to compensate her father with a money payment, marry her, and was forbidden to "put her away," or divorce her (Deut. 22:28-29). And yet again, the woman against whom the violence was committed was compelled to spend the rest of her life with the man who raped her. His good feelings toward her may be imagined. He was forced to pay her father and marry her; he could not divorce her; and the only one who benefitted from all of this was her father.

Even if it is argued that in those times a raped woman had a negligible chance of being married because of men's obsession with female chastity and monogamy, and that it likely would have been intolerable for the woman to remain unmarried all her life given the heavy social pressures against it, the compulsion of marriage between the raped and the rapist simply underscores the priority given the sexual preferences of men over the suffering of female victims. Ironically, a society pervaded by a religious outlook that mandated special consideration for the disadvantaged on humanitarian and moral grounds could not devise a more humane option for the raped woman than to swing the full weight of divine law behind her indissoluble union with her rapist.

If women were either seen as sexually predatory and wicked when not monogamous or suffered as victims of the sexual whims of men, even when they used their sexuality (perhaps their only weapon) in an attempt to compel male compliance with divine law, their position under that law was most precarious. In addition, a double standard of possible retribution based on sex reinforced the association of power with maleness and powerlessness with femaleness in ways that discouraged independent action by wronged women.

Judah and Tamar: The Double Sexual Standard

For instance, Judah refuses to permit his youngest son, Shelah, to perform levirate marriage with his daughter-in-law, Tamar, as required under the law, after she has lived as a widow, at Judah's direction, for many years after the deaths of her husband 'Er and his brother

Onan. Tamar sets into motion some interesting circumstances, which vividly illustrate how power was a component of male sexuality and powerlessness of female sexuality.

After the death of Judah's wife, Tamar learns that her father-in- law is going to attend a sheep-shearing in Tinmah. After years of enforced celibacy, she puts aside her widow's clothes and sits disguised at the crossroad along the way, "for she saw that Shelah was grown up, and she had not been given to him in marriage" (Gen. 38:14). Judah mistakes her for a prostitute, has intercourse with her, and promises to pay her with a kid from his flock. She asks for a pledge of his payment, and he gives her his signet, scarf, and staff. He later sends a servant to redeem his pledge, but she is gone, and Judah says: "Let her keep the things as her own, lest we be laughed at" (Gen. 38:23).

About three months later, he is told: "Tamar your daughter-in- law has played the harlot. . . she is with child by harlotry" (Gen. 38:24). As the male head of his family, Judah holds the power of life and death over its members. When Tamar is led out for punishment, she sends her father-in-law's pledges back to him, and tells him that their owner fathered her child. Judah acknowledges them as his own and says: "She is more righteous than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah." And he did not have intercourse with her again (Gen. 38:26).

The similarities and dissimilarities in their positions are rather glaring. They both lack spouses, i.e., there is no question of adultery in the usual sense. They both commit fornication. Her crime was harlotry, his disobedience to the levirate law. She faces death by burning because she was betrothed to Shelah as a child until he grew up and, as already mentioned, betrothal was considered as sexually binding on a woman as marriage. Tamar had no alternative but to present Judah's pledges, and her life was in his hands. Judah could acknowledge the pledges and not burn her, or alternatively not acknowledge the pledges and put her to death.

Further, he never does permit his son to "marry" her, or father a child in the name of his dead brother, for the twins Tamar bears are Judah's. And the latter's only punishment for breaking the law (for men could not be guilty of harlotry), is that he does not "know" Tamar again, although there were probably other prostitutes available. Judah does not have to relinquish his position as head of the clan because of his wrongdoing, and he and his descendants are assured of a place in the inheritance of Israel.

This double standard of punishment based on sex is fairly consistent. Queen Jezebel meets a horrible death because of her idolatry (1 Kings 21:23). However, when Moses is up on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments, the Hebrews ask Aaron to make them an image of the gods, and he complies with the Golden Calf (Exod. 32:1-5). The enormity of making a graven image of the divine may be estimated by its consequences. In retaliation, God tells the Levites to slaughter three thousand people, and he afflicts the Israelites with a plague as well (Exod. 33:26-35). But he treats his appointed male leaders differently. Aaron and his male descendants retain their power as priests of Israel, despite his idolatry.

Female Biology, Ritual Uncleanness, and Sin

The same double standard applied to the normal biological functioning of women and men. Divine law held that a menstruating woman was "impure" and "unclean," placing her in the same category with lepers, those who had "issues" from their bodies, semen or infectious ones, and those who touched the dead, all of whom were seen as sources of contamination and danger to the rest of the social group (Lev. 15). Thus, recurrently impure in her body, not from disease or sexual intercourse or contact with anything unclean, but simply from being born female, the woman became a source of "uncleanness" to men.

Though it has been maintained by some that this uncleanness applied only to the seven days around her menstrual period, there is some evidence that, in a more general sense, women were seen as more unclean than men. Apparently it was assumed that women were more likely to excite men sexually, or cause an "issue" of semen or uncleanness in men, than the reverse. Men were not considered a cause of uncleanness in women in quite the same way, since the notion of men sexually arousing women, if the latter were virtuous, apparently fell outside the pale of biblical conceptions of female sexuality; e.g., David is not shown as sexually arousing Bathsheba any more than Judah arouses Tamar or Amnon arouses Tamar. In other words, as different from men who might suffer from overt, predatory female sexuality, the danger to women's pursuit of righteousness lay in their own culpability rather than in male sexuality.

Another facet of the overriding ambivalence toward women was encompassed in their role as mother which, as has been seen, was to become their greatest and sometimes only source of honor. Although both women and men are told to be fruitful and multiply, after the part of the father in reproduction was known, it is only the mother who must make a sin-offering after childbirth as atonement to God. There is a later rabbinical explanation that every woman in childbirth vows never again to come near her husband in order to avoid the pain of delivery, and that her sin-offering at the birth of another child represents an atonement for abrogating her vow to God, not for childbirth itself. But since no vows made to God by women were binding unless they were endorsed by their fathers or husbands (Num. 30), it is unlikely that the latter would frequently endorse the permanent termination of their sexual pleasure. In addition, what does one do with all those women for whom childbirth is relatively fast and easy? Are they not also women and mothers?

Furthermore, there is something intrinsic in the birth of a female child that renders the mother more unclean and impure than the birth of a male child. She is unclean after childbirth, as when she menstruates, seven days for a male child but fourteen days for a female. She requires only thirty-three days of discharging to be "purified" after bearing a son, but sixty-six days after bearing a daughter (Lev. 12).

In what is presented as God's view, then, unlike men, women are impure in the flesh from birth by virtue of their sex, and sinful as a result of their sexuality, at the same time that they are most honored as mothers for the issue of their sexuality, which depends upon their normal menstruation. Obviously, the attitudes and rituals surrounding menstruation and childbirth are not only virtually lifelong but have nothing whatsoever to do with the circumstances a woman finds herself in or her moral qualities, because they are rooted in her biology. By contrast, men's "uncleanness" or, as we shall see, unfitness for participation in cultic rites, is only occasional in most instances, and may be cured or washed away. The uncleanness of women is seen as a part of their very nature, since it originates in their normal bodily processes. But, lacking the latter, they would be barren or most dishonored and vulnerable. It is perhaps this fixing of impurity and uncleanness in the body, joined to the economic roles of the virtuous wife, which most irrevocably marks women off as a sex—as at once more a part of the physical universe and more subject to it than men. These factors in effect keep women as a group out of "the gates" and, as shall be seen, out of the Sanctuary as well.

Was There a "Counterculture" in Israel?

Recently, a strong argument has been made that Old Testament attitudes toward women are neither as misogynistic as some have claimed, nor as ambivalent as claimed here, but rather represent a more complex theological development over time, which incorporates both positive and negative attitudes toward women in different periods and genres. Like Swidler's beliefs about the feminism of Jesus, this line of reasoning rests on the assumption that there is an original vision of sexual equality in the Bible, which, after a period of time, became skewed toward misogyny. Since this position has been so influential in the thinking of many who believe the Old Testament can be rescued from its worst misogynistic affect, and since it often includes some kind of reassessment of the creation account, historically so central to the Judeo-Christian understanding of appropriate roles for women and men in a divinely ordained universe, it seems important to consider a number of its major components.

Phyllis Trible's contributions in this area are not only representative of this process of reevaluation but appear to have laid some of the groundwork for looking at the Old Testament in new ways. In a brief but significant essay on women in the Old Testament, (14) for example, she argues that later interpretations may have overemphasized its accounts of unequal power relationships between women and men at the expense of other, nonsexist attitudes also found in that literature.

Trible describes the position of women in the Old Testament as shaped by two contending forces. Attitudes toward women and their status under the law were determined by the patriarchal society and religious system within which they lived. But in her view there was considerable opposition to both, arising out of that same patriarchal structure, which tended to modify them to some extent and allowed for the wider acknowledgment of women as full persons. After reviewing some of the familiar kinds of evidence for the subordination of Hebrew women within the family, in cult, and under the law, Trible goes on to cite what she sees as contrary evidence to illustrate this process of modification, found in some of the biblical genres that emerged at different times in the history of Israel.

Commencing with a list of the outstanding women, both native and foreign—e.g., Deborah, Jael, Chuldah, Noadiah, Ruth, Jezebel, the Queen of Sheba, Delilah, and the unnamed "wise women" of King David's reign—she then refers to "the extraordinary portrayal of wisdom itself as a woman closely associated with Yahweh (Prov. 8)." While Trible maintains that they alone did not change the patriarchal order, she nevertheless believes that they cannot be regarded as mere mavericks and exceptions, and that, in fact, they take on real importance in conjunction with what she terms biblical "evidence which directly challenges patriarchy," or what she calls the "counterculture."

Central to her argument for the existence of this countercultural trend is her rather novel reading of the second version of creation in Genesis:

The patriarchal culture of Israel knew a counterculture. Perhaps its paradigm was the Yahwist story of creation (Gen. 2-3). Special among the literature of the ancient Near East in focusing upon the creation of woman, this narrative depicts sexuality as occurring simultaneously for male and female (2:28). Moreover, the appearance of the woman is the climax of the whole story (cf. Gen. 1:27). While the animals were helpers for ''the man," they were inferiors. By contrast, the woman is "a helper fit for him" (2:18). This phrase connotes the equality of woman with man, an equality that is stressed in various ways. Both man and woman owe their lives solely to Yahweh. When the Lord created woman, the deity first put the man to sleep so that he did not participate at her birth. Woman herself is not the "rib" of man, for that extracted bone required the creative work of Yahweh to become woman. The rib means solidarity and equality. Out of his ecstasy man discovered a partner in woman rather than a creature to dominate.

In Gen. 2 the man remains silent while Yahweh plans his existence. He speaks only in response to the birth of woman. Then he recedes again while woman emerges as the strong figure. In conversation with the serpent, she quotes God and adds her interpretation ("neither shall you touch it") to the divine prohibition (Gen. 3:2-3). She contemplates the forbidden fruit physically, aesthetically, and theologically (vs.6). This primal woman is intelligent, independent, and decisive, fully aware as theologian when she takes the fruit and eats. But her husband does not struggle with the prohibition. Not a decision maker, he follows his wife without question.

The divine judgments describe (they do not prescribe) the disastrous effects of disobedience. Specifically, the rule of man over woman is a perversion of creation, which stands in need of grace. Thereby the culture of Israel received a formidable critique in the theology of the Yahwist. (15)

Trible believes the existence of this counterculture may be deduced from the writings of other Old Testament theologians as well, and she quotes some passages from the prophets Hosea and Jeremiah, which, in her view, display an anti-patriarchal bent: . . . Jeremiah himself proclaims the overthrow of patriarchy: For the Lord has created a new thing on the earth: a woman protects a man' (31:22)." (16)

She then proceeds to discuss the Song of Songs as an exemplification of countercultural attitudes in its portrayal of the sexual autonomy of both the woman and man, with no hint of dominance, subordination, or the ownership of the woman by the man; the mutuality of their relationship, marked by the open and active expression of sexuality by the woman; and the release of the woman from any suggestion of uncleanness related to her bodily functions. In short, while noting the existence of a patriarchal society throughout Israel's long history, Trible contends there were substantial variations in attitudes at different times and, prior to the sixth century b.c.e., or in pre-exilic times, "a depatriarchalizing principle was prominently at work in Hebrew faith." (17)

It is in the exilic and postexilic periods, under what Trible sees as the influence of the priesthood, that she contends the consolidation of patriarchal attitudes in cult occurred, characterized by the identification of wickedness, sin, and impurity with women. But she maintains that this development represented a point of view that was at variance with what she obviously understands as the inclination of a substratum of religious faith in the Old Testament, namely that which accorded the status of full personhood to women as well as men:

Gradually, then, in postexilic thinking an understanding of womanhood became dominant which moved toward misogyny: woman as an impure, subordinate, and inferior human creature.
Nevertheless, that view did not replace altogether the dynamic thrust of OT faith. Though it came to expression in a patriarchal culture, that thrust challenged, corrected, and transcended the culture. Accordingly, OT faith undercuts all man-made structures and ideas to place both woman and man sub specie aeternitatis.18

One hardly knows where to begin with an argument of this sort, and perhaps it would be best to consider it sequentially. As Trible observes, there were doubtless a variety of views expressed by different authors at different times within the limits imposed by the patriarchal structure of ancient Israel described in the Old Testament. That is the "given" in any sensible approach. Moreover, as already observed, the Bible is rich in inconsistencies and contradictions throughout its many parts, probably due in part to the different times of its composition. But once having said that, its utility as proof of any particular position is only minimal, and it is finally the text that must be looked to for substantiation.

No amount of trotting out the accomplishments of strong women in the Old Testament can compensate for their rarity as compared with men. All such efforts list the same few, over and over. They include even those who were aliens (and therefore in their status atypical of Hebrew women, e.g., the Queen of Sheba, Ruth), or idolatrous (and therefore despised, e.g., Queen Jezebel, Delilah), or unnamed (and therefore significant for their anonymity, e.g., the "wise women" of King David's reign), or obviously revered in their own time (but about whom we know little else and from whom we have no written legacy, e.g., Chuldah), or apparently of some prominence in cultic life (but treated by God more punitively than male cultic leaders for the same transgression, e.g., Miriam).

Also, wisdom is most assuredly not a real woman, as Trible says, even though it is designated as feminine, and even though "she" briefly describes herself in human imagery (Prov. 9:1-6). Clearly, she is a personification of the path to righteousness for the sons of Solomon. Simply, her power is too boundless, her "life" too long, and God, too, sometimes uses "human" imagery to describe himself. Indeed, if one were to take literally her self-description in this chapter and elsewhere (e.g., chapter 8), one would almost have a female counterpart to God.

Trible's analysis of the second story of creation (Gen. 2, 3) is a moving statement for the equality of women and men, or possibly even the superiority of women in that particular episode, but it seems to be based more on desire than on reality. For example, she is right when she says, "this narrative depicts sexuality as occurring simultaneously for male and female," but it is hard to imagine anything other if the passage describes a heterosexual relationship. And she is right when she isolates it as "special ... in focusing on the creation of women." But its meaning hinges on its purpose.

Again, simply because the woman is created last, it does not necessarily mean that her appearance is "the climax of the entire story." She may, indeed, have been necessary to the man, especially for procreation. But she may also have been an afterthought of God and, by analogy (in this case a rather foreboding one), the purpose of her creation might have been not unlike the purpose for which humanity was created in Sumerian and Babylonian myths, namely to serve divinities. However, in these last instances service to the divine meant the presence of both sexes in cult, thus guaranteeing the continuity of divine intervention in human history. When the image of the last-created woman is joined to that of wife, whose virtue is established by her material, economic service to her husband rather than God, it casts the purpose of her appearance in a somewhat different light.

While the animals may well have been created as both "helpers" for the man and inferior to him and the woman as only a "helper" to the man, if she is "fit for him," his existence is prior to hers in time and therefore provides the norm against which the fitness or unfitness of his human helper is measured. Hence, it is difficult to see how the description of woman as a helper fit for man connotes "the equality of woman with man" unless man is also described (and he is not) as a helper fit for woman.

The fact that "both man and woman owe their lives solely to Yahweh" hardly suggests their necessary equality either, since everyone/thing owes her/his/its existence to Yahweh. Likewise, when God puts the man to sleep during the woman's creation, it does not necessarily imply that the man does not participate in her birth. How much more closely can one participate than to have another being created out of part of one's body, asleep or awake?

The meaning of "The rib means solidarity and equality" is elusive. (In fact, as Samuel Noah Kramer pointed out, the image of the rib might well have come from the myth of Dilmun, the Sumerian paradise, when the goddess Ninhursag restores the failing god Enki by creating goddesses and gods to heal specific parts of his diseased body. According to Kramer, the goddess Ninti, "the lady of the rib," was created to heal Enki's ribs, (19) and thus the famous rib of Adam may have been intended as nothing more than a literary pun.) With regard to Trible's assertion that "Out of his ecstasy man discovered a partner in woman rather than a creature to dominate," one can only remark that it was God, not man, who established the nature of their relationship. And it is also uncertain and unclear that the man was all that ecstatic.

Furthermore, the scene between the woman and the serpent does not seem to demonstrate that the primal woman is "fully aware as theologian when she takes the fruit and eats." She may well have been "intelligent, independent, and decisive." However, as indicated earlier, hers could not have been a theological decision until after she ate the fruit, since before then she lacked knowledge of good and evil, and hence could not have known that disobedience to God and death were either sinful or evil. If anyone is a theologian, it is the serpent. And though Adam does indeed remain silent during the dialogue between the woman and the serpent, he too "takes the fruit and eats."

The meaning of this scene becomes clarified only by its consequences. It provokes God to place the woman in subordination to man, in a narrower range of roles than those suffered by Adam, and, perhaps only incidentally, it served as the basis for the centuries-long damnation of the nature of women as morally weaker and more vulnerable to sin than that of men by a host of poets, philosophers, and theologians.

Trible calls "the rule of man over woman ... a perversion of creation, which stands in need of grace," but this is not only obscure; it is also textually unwarranted. Whatever it stands in need of, when God orders the subordination of the woman to the man as the aftermath of their creation, he does not term it a perversion but presents it rather neutrally, as a consequence of transgression. Nor does God indicate in any way that it is a temporary situation, or that its cessation is contingent on an act of divine grace. In any event, if it is a perversion, its author is neither the woman, the man, nor the serpent. Likewise, maintaining that "the culture of Israel received a formidable critique in the theology of the Yahwist" seems barely adequate as a summary of the chapters that establish a secular hierarchy based on sex, and evidence the treatment of the woman by God as though she possesses a lesser capacity for moral judgment than either Adam or the serpent, in the sense that God is not shown as directly linking the woman's transgression to her punishment, as he does with the man and the serpent.

The few passages quoted by Trible from the prophetic literature that use feminine, or ostensibly more benign, imagery are rather unconvincing when placed in their larger context. For example, she quotes Hosea as saying that Israel will call Yahweh "my husband" rather than "my master" and claims that this phrase is "echoing the harmony of woman and man before their corruption." (20) However, it is a bit difficult to locate precisely the harmony she refers to. Genesis is fairly silent on this matter, beyond the man's initial acknowledgment of the woman as his wife. From what is written elsewhere in the Old Testament about marriage relationships, they were a far more harmonious state for husbands than wives, given the former's almost absolute authority over the latter. Moreover, the use of the phrase "my husband" by women (as different from Hosea) might not automatically imply endearment.

As Trible notes, there is no question that the Song of Songs is in important respects quite different from many other parts of the Old Testament, most especially in its nonhierarchical picture of heterosexual love and its celebration of female and male sexuality. There are, of course, other rabbinical interpretations of its meaning. It has been held, for instance, that it symbolizes the union of bride and bridegroom, with Israel as the former and God as the latter, or that it may be understood as a representation of the consummation of God's love for Israel expressed in highly erotic language, in which Israel as the beloved is designated as feminine, recalling some of the imagery found in other books (e.g., Ezekiel).

But whatever the reasons for its inclusion in the final canon, and however its imagery was taken in those early times, the Song of Songs seems to fall short as an example of an authentic "counterculture" thrust in the Old Testament. It may or may not be a midrash on Gen. 2 and 3, as Trible Speculates in an earlier article. (21) In its focus on love and sexual pleasure, it does not attend at all to any of the political and legal strictures placed on married and unmarried women alike. And since it bears only minimally on cultic practices, it does not touch on the belief in women's recurrent uncleanness in the body, which provided the basis for the association of sin with their normal biological functioning and for their periodic exclusion from worship in the Sanctuary.

Finally, it is hard to identify just what Trible means by "the dynamic thrust of OT faith," which, "Though it came to expression in a patriarchal culture . . . challenged, corrected, and transcended the culture . . . and undercuts all man-made structures and ideas to place both woman and man sub specie aeternitatis." Again, there are the nagging questions, whose faith, and what do the different rewards and penalties for women and men tell us about the nature and content of that faith?

In the absence of any convincing evidence of powerful counter-currents in the Old Testament (as different from more or less benign attitudes toward women), what is left is the image of a single deity acting and reacting in the context of a patriarchal culture qua religion. And all of this contributes to a real dilemma in trying to disentangle the substance of "the faith" from the web of antiwoman biases apparent in Old Testament imagery, the content of the law, and the diminished status of women in cult. In short, the emergence of different attitudes toward women at different times is certainly a matter of interest and importance to students of the history of religion. But from the perspective of the worshipers of Yahweh, the Old Testament expresses deeply ambivalent images of women, who were at once fully incorporated into the community of believers under divine laws or grace, but were subjected to severe strictures placed on them in that community on account of their sex and sexuality.

The New Testament

On the surface, gender may seem more blatantly linked to power and powerlessness in the Old Testament than in the New. However, the opening of the latter, which places Jesus in a direct line of descent from Abraham through his earthly "father," even as his motheris about to deliver him in a Virgin Birth in order to enable his redemptive mission, sets the stage for a work that portrays women somewhat differently than in the Old Testament but that ultimately exhibits the same degree of ambivalence toward females as a se

As in the Old Testament, women appear in a variety of roles. In the course of Paul's proselytizing journeys, reference is made to the Jews of Antioch, who incite "the devout women of high standing" as well as "the leading men of the city" to persecute Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:50). In Thessalonica, Paul and Silas convert "a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women" (Acts 17:4). When they preach the message of Christ in Beroe'a, "Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men" (Acts 17:12). When Paul is accused by the Jews of Jerusalem, the Roman governor Felix comes with his wife, Drusilla, to hear him preach (Acts 24:24-25), and two years later the new governor, Festus, lays Paul's case before King Agrippa, who is accompanied by Bernice (Acts 25:13-14).

However, the inclusion by name of these prominent women would seem to reflect more upon the relatively high standing of some non-Semitic women in the various places visited (perhaps an indication of the greater freedom enjoyed then by upper-class women in Hellenistic Greece, Egypt, and Imperial Rome) than on any of the early Christian attitudes toward proper roles for women. More important, women as well as men were included in the process of conversion to Christianity.

The Anonymous Women

As already mentioned, women were among those who first identi­fied the special mission of Jesus in his infancy, and who later were healed, baptized, and converted. Women both taught his message and prayed with the apostles after his death and resurrection. However, though some of these women were of obvious importance in the life of Jesus and in early Christianity, like their counterparts in the Old Testament, they too remain veiled in anonymity. Therefore, in effect they are remembered not so much for their individual spiritual gifts but almost as interchangeable prototypes of their sex.

For example, Philip has four unmarried daughters who prophesy (Acts 21:8-9). Jesus speaks to the unnamed Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:7-26), who returns to Samaria and repeats her conversation and conversion. "Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman's testimony" (John 4:39), and they go to hear the words of Jesus for themselves. Here, despite Jesus' dialogue with a woman and a Samaritan, on both counts as dramatic as it was remarkable, there is the uneasy suspicion that for his purpose any Samaritan woman would do.

In the last few emotion-charged days before his crucifixion, there are two instances when women enable him to reveal his mission and demonstrate the new kind of ethics he preached. In the first, when a woman of Bethany anoints him with expensive oil, to the indignation of his disciples, who believe it wasteful because it could have been sold in order to provide for the poor (Matt. 26:6-10), Jesus attributes fore­knowledge or the gift of prophecy to her and says: "In pouring this ointment on my body she has done it to prepare me for burial" (Matt. 26:12). Then he calls her act beautiful and says she will be remembered for it all over the world, wherever his gospel is preached (Matt. 26:10, 13).

In the second instance, a sinning woman from the city weeps over him and anoints him while he dines with the Pharisees. The latter question whether Jesus is a genuine prophet, because he permits the woman to touch him despite her sinfulness, and he relates a parable to illustrate his new ethic, namely that her love for him and faith in him made her worthy of divine forgiveness (Luke 8:36-50). And in each case the woman who, in her love and faith, provides Jesus with an opportunity to defy the traditional wisdom and morality and replace them with his own, remains eternally anonymous.

Gender-Based Distinctions in Relations to the Divine

There is no question that Jesus introduces a number of radical ideas about the proper roles of women and men in relation to each other and to the divine, for in many places faith in him and his teachings rather than submission to Mosaic law is stressed as the way to salvation. Nevertheless, there are other aspects of early Christian attitudes toward sex roles and the relation of gender to power and powerlessness that seem to have made as much of a distinction on the basis of sex as any of the biblical selections examined from the Old Testament. At times these distinctions were overt, at other times implicit and more subtle, but their cumulative effect was to move men more closely than women into the orbit of Jesus' mission, and to place women still again in a more peripheral relation to divinity than men. These sexual distinctions appear in the Gospels, in Jesus' relations with women and men, and in the views and roles of his apostles and disciples.

On its simplest level, there is a strong implicit identification of godliness with maleness. Jesus is male, repeatedly described as the son of his father, and he rests his mission on this attachment even while he publicly repudiates his biological mother (Mark 3:33-35), and even in the absence of a heavenly mother. This seems especially significant because it occurred at a time when, as seen earlier, Hebrew women came to be honored most for their motherhood. It might appear that Jesus was opening up roles other than motherhood as sources of honor for women, except that he addresses any woman in the crowd who believes in his message as his mother. Moreover, Mary was identified as the unique instrument for the fulfillment of the divine purpose, but even in this role she is shown in the New Testament as playing only a minimal part in the mission of her son, except as his biological mother. Thus, while her motherhood was essential to her son's destiny, it was simultaneously rejected by Jesus as of any special importance in relation to him. In other words, Mary is portrayed with the most profound ambivalence.

Undoubtedly, women appear in various roles in the New Testament, but those who stand closest to Jesus are men. By way of example, many of the New Testament narratives describe how Jesus reveals his identity, mission, compassion, and power through supernatural signs and wonders. He heals wherever he goes, resurrects the dead, and feeds thousands with loaves and fishes (Mark 8:1-21; Luke 7:12-16, 9:10-17; John 6:1-14). It therefore seems most indicative of his purpose that his power to heal, reflective of his origin and ability to convert the unbelievers, was passed along by Jesus to his male apostles and followers but not to his mother or female disciples:

And he called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal. . . . And they departed and went through the villages, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere. (Luke 9:1-2,6)

That these divine endowments were regarded as authentic and were used effectively in winning people over to Jesus may be seen, for example, in the instance of Paul healing a man in Lystra who had been crippled from birth (Acts 14:8-10), when the response of the onlookers is: "The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!" (Acts 14:11). Likewise, Peter heals a paralyzed man with the result that: "all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord" (Acts 9:33-35). In contrast to males, who share in the divine power to heal and convert, the female disciple Dorcas "was full of good works and acts of charity" (Acts 9:36). Or, recalling the ambiguities surrounding the ability of childbearing women to devote themselves totally to the life of the spirit because of their necessary preoccupation with material labor, some of the men who follow Jesus are shown as more closely affiliated with the divine and the process of spiritual conversion, while the woman who follows Jesus is shown as dispensing her charity and good works in the material world. Along these lines, Paul envisions a hierarchy on earth as decreed by God: "And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues" (1 Cor. 12:28). And men were among the most prominent and numerous of the apostles, prophets, teachers, and healers.

Jesus accommodates this male-centered view during the Last Supper, when he promises his male apostles residence in the kingdom of heaven, where they will judge Israel: "You are those who have continued with me in my trials; and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Luke 22:28-30).

Indeed, it would appear that part of the appeal by Jesus to abandon exclusive obedience to the teachings of the Torah in favor of his own was directed primarily to men. For example, as expressed by John:

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth: we have beheld his glory, glory as the only Son from the Father. . . . And from his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses: grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known. (John 1:14-18)

Since most Hebrew women of those times were not taught Torah and seemed to occupy a more marginal place than men in cult, it is likely that their decisions with regard to following the lead of Jesus rather than adhering to the Old Testament may have been based on less weighty moral and spiritual considerations than those confronting men.

The Ritual Uncleanness of Women

In the New Testament, both the transcendent importance attached to faith in Jesus and love for one's neighbor, as compared with mere observance of Mosaic law (John 1:17-18), and Paul's elimination of the hitherto mandatory requirement of circumcision for male gentile converts to Christianity (Rom. 2:25-29; 1 Cor. 7:18-20) would seem, by implication, to have lifted the onus of ritual uncleanness and sinfulness from menstruant and childbearing women. But the persuasiveness of this argument is weakened somewhat by those instances in the narratives in which people are physically liberated from the jurisdiction and punishment of the law through the compassion and grace of Jesus.

There is a suggestion of symbolic conformity to Old Testament doctrines of "cleanness," not too surprising since Jesus sometimes preached in and around synagogues. Hence at times he and, through him, his apostles chose to demonstrate the power of faith in him by healing members of precisely those groups whose physical imperfections or afflictions formerly excluded them from worship under Mosaic law. Among them were those who were unclean because of their bodily issues, the leper and the haemorrhaging woman. Indeed, the Hebrew emphasis on ritual cleanness may explain, in part, one of the underlying motives for the repeated call by Jesus and others to abandon the treasures and pleasures of the earthly life for the greater ones of the spiritual, since even those who experienced bodily secretions as a result of sexual intercourse were rendered temporarily unclean or unfit for participation in sacred rites for a while afterward.

In short, Jesus healed or made clean those who had been isolated or kept apart because of their physical conditions and thus restored them to full membership in the religious community. Moreover,though the sanctity of Mosaic law was superseded by the doctrine of redemption through faith in Christ (John 1:17-18), in the New Testament there is no explicit rejection of the uncleanness and sin associated with menstruant and childbearing women under the law comparable to the exemption of male gentile converts from mandatory circumcision.

While it may be speculated that the last was possibly a mere political move designed to win more converts and make the church truly catholic, it may also be argued that in not specifically lifting the cultic burden of blood taboos from women they remained as an implicit residue, and this might have stemmed from the fact that women were not thought of as important a group to convert as men. After all, at least among the Hebrews, it was the men who controlled the power, wealth, dispensations of rewards and punishments under the law, and cult.

But whatever the reasons for the disparate attitudes toward women and men in terms of cultic requirements for physical marks of holiness or cleanness, or however one understands Paul's long discussion of why circumcision for men is merely an external or less important sign of dedication to God than faith (Rom 2:25-29, 3, 4:1-12), while he maintains absolute silence about the ritual uncleanness of women in their normal biological functioning, those episodes which seem to address themselves explicitly to the former exclusion of various groups from sacred rites because of what was perceived as their physical imperfections or uncleanness did not refer to women, unless they also were lepers or bled for twelve years. The special status accorded to all women, in which they were periodically forbidden a role in cult only because of their biology, could not be implicitly or explicitly addressed. Since they suffered from no disease, they could not be healed through faith in Jesus.

The Paradox of the Adulterous Woman

Also, though the views of Jesus about permanence in marriage and equal responsibilities and rights for men and women in cases of divorce and adultery introduced among the Semitic peoples of his time some radical notions of reciprocity and equality in relations between the sexes in this life (Mark 10:6-12; Luke 16:18), at times he seems morally at ease with more traditional distinctions made along sexual lines. For example, there is a passage that is often cited to illustrate the compassion of Jesus, his special love for sinners and the downtrodden, his insistence that justice be dispensed in an even-handed manner, and the inclusion of all persons within the shelter of his way, or the universality of his message. This episode deals with his treatment of the adulterous woman.

What she was indulging in the nature of her "sin," as it were was sexual activity outside of monogamous marriage, in violation of the law. While Jesus, with his new ethics of responsibility for adultery irrespective of sex, says to the men who would stone her, "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her" (John 8:7), their "sin" might or might not have been of a sexual nature. It is interesting that no man is pardoned by Jesus for his overt sexuality even though the woman obviously could not have committed adultery without a male partner.

Hence, though Jesus clearly breaks with Mosaic tradition in his treatment of the woman, when he also tells her "do not sin again" (John 8:11) and does not so admonish her partner in sin, he focuses more attention on female than male sexuality as sinful. Indeed, since the New Testament was written by men, it would seem that female sexuality might have been one of the things many of them had to struggle with, not unlike Jerome and Augustine later on, when they turned their backs on the joys of this world in order to attain the more perfect ones of the spiritual world.

The Traditional Roles of Women

In addition to those women already discussed, who anoint his body prior to the crucifixion (Matt. 26:6-13; Luke 8:36-50), or fulfill roles conventional for women throughout the ancient Near East (and later elsewhere) by assuming the care of the dying and the dead, whatever the Christian overlay in those scenes, in other places and times women are shown as "ministering" to Jesus and physically caring for him in very traditional ways (Matt. 26:6-13, 27:55; Mark 1:31, 14:3-9, 15:40-41; Luke 5:39, 7:37-39, 44-48, 8:1-3). Silas's mother- in-law serves Jesus and his disciples after he heals her (Mark 1:30-31, Luke 4:38-39). Many women follow Jesus from Galilee, "ministering to him," among them Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James and Joseph (Matt. 27:55; Mark 16:40-41). Other women who had been healed and cured travel with him and the apostles and "provided for them out of their means" (Luke 8:1-3). While none of these acts of love is necessarily related to sex, again Jesus does not tell men to share in the cooking so that women have time to share in the life of the spirit. He does not specifically say anywhere that women are not unclean or impure in the body because they menstruate. He does not speak against the need for a sin-offering or purification of only the mother after childbirth.

And he does isolate only women for compassion before the end of time, when he says: "... in the days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written. Alas for those who are with child and for those who give suck in those days!" (Luke 21:22-23). In other words, when he predicts that Jerusalem will be destroyed by the gentiles, in a time of great chaos, confusion, and destruction, it is strange that he does not also sorrow for the probable difficulties of the elderly, infirm, and crippled who might not easily escape from the city, but only for the women with children. And it is possibly because he knows that the full responsibility for the children will be theirs, or other women's.

Ambivalence toward Women

The full force of the early Christian ambivalence toward women may be inferred from gospel accounts of the life of Jesus and from the letters written by those men who were closest to him. At the same time that Jesus himself frequently treats women as equals, he is also shown as accepting traditional roles for women based on social inequalities between the sexes. The failure of Jesus to identify as a high moral issue the sex-segregated roles of his time, in which women's preoccupations fell largely and of necessity within the province of material concerns so that men could devote themselves more to moral and spiritual concerns, thus places the well-known misogynistic dicta from the New Testament in context as part of the negative aspect of this pervasive ambivalence.

Therefore, while the equality of all persons in Christ stands (Gal. 3:28), in the secular world other relationships coexist and are indeed sanctioned. Thus man is the image and glory of God and woman is the glory of man; woman was created from man, not the reverse; woman is to keep silent in churches and be subordinate and subject in everything to her husband (1 Cor. 11:7-9, 14:33-36; Eph. 6:33). Men are to love their wives and the latter are to respect their husbands (Eph. 6:22). Women are not to teach or have authority over men; "Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet woman will be saved through bearing children" (1 Tim. 2:11-15). Women are urged to be submissive to their husbands, "as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord" (1 Pet. 3:6), and women are "the weaker sex" (1 Pet. 3:7). And in a reference to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as examples of the results of ungodliness, there is a eulogy of righteous Lot—who offered up his daughters for rape to protect the male strangers in his house (2 Pet. 2:7-8).

These sentiments have been explained away as having been necessitated by sociological, historical, and theological circumstances—the disruptiveness of some women in the congregation at Corinth, the need for order, the threat of gnosticism, the influence on Paul of the first-century Jewish milieu, the realization that the end-times were not indeed at hand, even by the possibility that not all of the Pauline writings are from the hand of Paul.(22) Historically, all of this may be so. However, these prescriptions about women also constitute part of the canon, along with the compassion and inclusion of all persons who have faith in Christ taught by the primitive church. And these passages may, as well, represent an amplification and transformation of the pejorative attitudes that formed part of the deep ambivalence expressed toward women as a sex in the Old Testament as they passed through the prism of the first-century outlook and environment of Jesus, and of those males who were most closely affiliated with him.

Sex Roles in Polytheistic and Biblical Texts

As compared with polytheistic religions, then, in parts of the Bible prescribed roles seemed to be more closely grounded in gender. There is a greater emphasis on the association of power, autonomy, and influence with maleness than with femaleness, an emphasis explicit in the Old Testament, more implicit in the New. Simultaneously, like men, women were considered as part of the religious community, sometimes even portrayed in central roles. Consequently, biblical attitudes toward femininity came to be characterized by a profound and pervasive ambivalence, which was relatively absent from polytheism.

This tended to be reflected in attitudes toward sexuality, and particularly female sexuality, which not only came to be seen in its reproductive aspect as essential to the survival of the social group, but also apparently elicited some male fear and anxiety. As different from most polytheistic attitudes toward female sexuality, which in general seem to have celebrated it as natural and beneficent in its results for the community, a number of biblical passages appear to view it as dangerous to the pursuit of righteousness by men, and mark women off as inherently "unclean" because of their normal sexual functioning.

In the Bible, there is a decisive shift away from the polytheistic view of divine maternity and paternity as indispensable to life and the fertility of nature, toward a belief in the supreme importance of an asexual god as creator. In the absence of a feminine involvement in the all -important act of creation, a view emerged of the lesser importance of women on earth, who labored as economic producers even as they bore the children, and even if their offspring was referred to as the son of God, while men inhabited the more important sphere of moral and spiritual concerns.

Both testaments introduced, in a systemic way, the concept of a secular hierarchy based on sex, in which power and powerlessness became associated with gender; virtue and honor came to mean different things for each sex; and men came to be seen in their secular roles as the more authentic spokesmen for the divine, at the same time that women were portrayed in a variety of roles in the community of believers and were both honored and valued in some of them. In short, it was both the monotheistic elevation of the importance of gender as the basis of power and the ambivalence exhibited toward women as a sex that were most alien, in many respects, to the vision and practices of polytheistic religions in the ancient Near East.


1. Johs. Pederson, Israel: Its Life and Culture, 1st printing, 1940 (London: Geoffrey Cumberlege, Oxford University Press, 1963), 4 vols., vols. 1-2, pp. 228-30.

Ibid., pp. 231-32.

3. Phyllis Bird, "Images of Women in the Old Testament," in Ruether, Religion and Sexism, p. 71.

4. Ibid., p. 72.

5. Ibid., p. 77.

6. Ibid., p. 76.

7. Ibid., p. 77.

8. Ibid., pp. 41-42, 48-55.

9. Carol Meyers, "The Roots of Restriction: Women in Early Israel," Biblical Archaeologist, September 1978, pp. 91-103.

10. Otwell, And Sarah Laughed, pp. 65-66.

11. Ibid., p. 66.

12. J. H. Hertz, ed., Pentateuch & Haftorahs (London: Soncino Press, 1972), note to Deut. 24:17-18, p. 852.

13. Phyllis Trible, "Women in the OT," in Crim et. al., The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible: Supplementary Volume, 1976, pp. 963-66.

14. Ibid., p. 965.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.


18.Ibid., p. 966.

19. Kramer,"Sumerian Myths and Epic Tales," in Pritchard, ANET p.41

20. Trible, "Women in the OT," p. 965.

21.Trible, "Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation " Journal of the American Academy of Religion, XLI/I, March 1973, pp. 42-47.

22. See, for example, Constance F. Parvey, "The Theology and Leadership of Women in the New Testament," in Ruether, Religion and Sexism, pp. 117-49; Evelyn and Frank Stagg, Woman in the World of Jesus, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1978), pp. 162-204; Munro, "Patriarchy and Charismatic Community in 'Paul,' " in Plaskow and Romero, Women and Religion, pp. 189- 98.

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