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Women in the Hebrew Bible

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The status of women in the Hebrew Bible has helped shape gender roles and define the legal standing of women in the West for millennia. This influence has waned somewhat as Western culture has become progressively more secular, beginning at the Enlightenment.

Complex and ambivalent roles

The views of women presented in the Hebrew Bible are complex and often ambivalent. However, the question of women's status relative to men remains a central and controversial issue in any approach to this text, from apologetics and Christian beliefs to feminism and atheism.

Steven Weitzman, Harvard PhD and religious studies professor at Stanford University, says the Genesis Creation accounts have been used to deprecate women on the alleged authority of the Bible: Jews and Christians, throughout their history, have used the story of Adam and Eve to justify second-class status for women. Paul and other early Christians looked to the Adam and Eve story to put the blame for the Fall on Eve and derived from that the conclusion that women should not be allowed to hold positions of authority or to teach.

Creation narratives

The creation of Adam and Eve is narrated from somewhat different perspectives in Genesis 1:26-27 and Genesis 2:24. The Genesis 1 narration declares the purpose of God, antedating the creation of the sexes.[1] It has been called the "non-subordinating" view of woman.[2] God gave the human pair joint responsibility and "rulership" over his creation.

Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

Genesis 1:26-27

Genesis 5:1-2 reaffirms that perspective and has been described as interpretative of that decree of God's initial purpose.[1]

When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them. And when they were created, he called them "man" [Heb. Adam].

Genesis 5:1-2

The Genesis 2 narrative has been called the "subordinating view" of woman for two reasons: man is created first, and woman is created out of man.[2]

...But for Adam (or the man) no suitable helper was found. So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man's ribs (or "took part of the man's side") and closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib (or "took part of the man's side") he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, "This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called 'woman,' for she was taken out of man." For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.

Genesis 2:20b-24, NIV

"…for Adam there was not found an help meet for him." [Gen. 2:20b] "…no suitable helper [ēzer kenegdo] was found" (NIV). The word translated "suitable" (kenegdo) means "face to face" and denotes equality and adequacy.[3] Woman for centuries has been instructed to be "an "helpmeet" for her husband. However, any text search of both Old and New Testaments (every translation) will demonstrate that the noun "helpmeet" does not appear anywhere in the Bible. It has become a distorted contraction of the two KJV words, the noun "help" and the adverb "meet," the latter being Shakespearian English for "corresponding to" or "suitable," a phenomenon that has been corrected in all later translations.[4]

Although the Genesis 2 passage is often cited as biblical evidence that subordination represents God’s will for women, Theologian Roger Nicole disagrees. He believes women's place in the home, in society, and in the church is not an issue that can be conclusively determined by a few apparently restrictive passages. He writes that the starting point must be at the creation of humanity, as Jesus himself exemplified by quoting Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:24 in response to a question by the Pharisees.[Matt. 19:4–5] [Mk. 10:6–7] [3]

The Fall of humanity

Eve's weakness has sometimes been blamed for causing Adam's fall, and thus for humanity's fall into original sin.[5] This claim was frequently made during the Middle Ages and was a subject in John Milton's classic epic, Paradise Lost.

There is no mention of subordination in scripture until the end of Genesis 3:16. There, God explains what will become the natural consequences of the woman's disobedience, now that they both are in a fallen (sinful) state: "He [your husband] will rule over you." For eons this has been colloquially called "The Curse."

However, theologian Nicole does not see it that way:[3], aeguing that the passage is not a commandment, but a prophecy that has been fulfilled extensively over the centuries in all the earth. Whatever we may do to alleviate God’s curse is legitimate in the matter of subordination, no less than in providing some relief from the pains of the delivery of children (3:16) and the sweat in cultivating the ground and earning a living (3:17–19).

In addition, those who argue that Judaism is founded upon patriarchal principles point out that religious and governmental authority within Jewish cultures has usually been restricted to the male gender.

However, even in the Jewish Scriptures there are countercurrents to this patriarchal emphasis. For example, "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness." Subsequent to God making Adam in his image he made Eve. [Genesis 1:26]

Old Testament post-creation views

The Bible is the only book in the world up to our century which looks at women as human beings, no better and no worse than men, according to classicist Edith Hamilton. She writes that the Old Testament writers considered them just as impartially as they did men, free from prejudice and even from condescension.[6] However, it cannot be said that the society and culture of Old Testament times were consistently favorable to women.

The status of woman in the Old Testament is not uniform. There is a male bias and a male priority generally present in both the private life and public life of women. However, it never becomes absolute. In the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) of Exodus 20, both male priority and gender balance can be seen. In the tenth commandment, a wife is depicted in the examples of a neighbor's property not to be coveted: house, wife, male or female slave, ox or donkey, or any other property. In this perspective, wife along with other properties belongs to the husband. On the other hand, the fourth commandment does not make any distinction between honor to be shown to parents: "father and your mother." This is consistent with the mutual respect shown for both parents throughout the Old Testament.[2]

Double standard and male priority

Double standard and male priority can also be seen in Moses' orders on what to do with the captured Midianites: "Kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man intimately. But all the girls who have not known man intimately, spare for yourselves."[Num. 31:17-18] The women of Israel were most honored and influential within the family. They gained considerable respect on the birth of her first child, especially if it was a male child.[Gen. 16:4] [29:31-30:24] Even here, she was honored because of her function of providing a male heir, not because of her value as a person.

On a positive note, Proverbs 1:8 tells a son not to reject his mother's teaching, and Proverbs 31:10-31 eulogizes the ideal wife, even though she is idealized for her hard labor for her family. The laws of inheritance favored the male. A male Hebrew slave was freed after six years of servitude, while a different set of rules covered female slaves.[Ex. 21:1-11] If a man rapes an unbetrothed virgin, he must pay her father 50 shekels of silver and then marry her.[Deut. 22:28-29] Judges 19 records a most degrading use of a daughter by her father. "The gruesome story of his using his concubine to protect himself defies imagination." Infidelity to God is portrayed as an "adulteress," not an "adulterer."[2]

Judges and prophets

The Bible portrays Rebekah, Rahab, Deborah, Jael, Esther, and Judith and their contributions to the nation of Israel with faithfulness and extreme candor. These women are represented in the Old Testament as multidimensional human beings – self-reliant, resourceful, influential, and courageous – but at the same time capable of resorting to morally questionable means in order to accomplish their ends.[7]

Distinctions were usually made between men and women during the Old Testament period. Only men were required to attend the annual festivals[Ex. 23:17] [Lev. 23] though women were permitted to attend if they chose to do so.[1 Sam. 1:9] [1:21-22] The Mosaic Law recognized women’s responsibilities at home as wives and mothers. However, this did not prohibit women from all religious service. Women served at the door of the Tabernacle.[Ex. 38:8] Both men and women contributed their valuables for use in the building of the Tabernacle.[Ex. 35:22-26] The Laver for ministry in the court of the tabernacle was made of brass from the mirrors of the women only.[8]

Deborah was a prophetess who actually ruled Israel.[Judges 4:4] When the Israelite men were too afraid to assume leadership, Deborah shamed Barak, the military commander of Israel’s army, for failing to assume his God-given leadership. Ultimately, he refused to advance against the enemy without Deborah’s presence and commanding influence (Judges 4:8).[9]

Huldah, a married prophetess[2 Ki. 22:13-20] found the Book of the Law that the previous generation had neglected. She was trusted by Josiah, king of Judah, to be the one to verify the authenticity of the Book of the Law. Huldah’s husband was keeper of the wardrobe in the court.[10]

Religious privileges of women

Women as well as men were able to consecrate themselves with the vow of a Nazarite.[Num. 6:2] Women shared in the sacred meals and great annual feasts.[Deut. 16:11,14] They shared with the men in offering sacrifices. They also were privileged to experience theophanies (appearances of angels and other divine apparitions).[11]

The Old Testament presents strong female role models, like the Judge Deborah, Judith and Queen Esther, who were depicted as saving the Hebrew people from disaster. In the book of Proverbs, the divine attribute of Holy Wisdom is presented as female.[12]

Liturgical song and dance

Hebrew women attended worship services and provided a ministry in music.[Ex. 15:20-21] [1 Chron. 25:5] They sang and danced in worship and often celebrated before the Lord with singing, dancing, and tambourines.[1 Sam. 18:6] [Ps. 68:25] The “daughters of music”[Eccl. 12:4] were singing women, but they were not included in the temple choir.

Prophecy was also often sung as may be seen in the Psalms which were inspired words put to song. Miriam and Deborah composed the two oldest pieces of literature preserved in the Bible, which are regarded as literary masterpieces.[Ex. 15] [Judg 5] Prophecy often included instruments.[1 Chr. 25:1-3] In Exodus 15:19-21 Israel’s first prophetess (Miriam) led the women in timbrel, dancing, and singing of the same song of Moses which is the most ancient praise song in the biblical record.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton writes in The Woman's Bible: "The transfer of a camel or donkey from one owner to another, no doubt, was often marked with more consideration than that of a daughter. One loves a faithful animal long in our possession and manifests more grief in parting that did these Hebrew fathers in giving away their daughters".[13]

Reinterpretation in modern times

Fast forward to the nineteenth and twentieth century and the rise of feminism: The Bible has been reinterpreted to support the idea that women are in every way the equal of man, each created in the image of God. "If you look at Genesis 1, where God says, 'Let there be light,' you see at the end of the chapter that the creation of woman is different from the story of how woman is created in the Garden of Eden, where Eve is the helpmate to man, created to serve. In Genesis, Chapter 1, man and woman are both created equally in the image of God. Recent feminist biblical scholars have looked at Genesis 1 as a kind of countertext to the Garden of Eden story. It shows how complex the Bible's attitude toward women is."—Prof. Steven Weitzman, PhD, U. of Indiana[14] </blockquote>

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 Starr, L. A. The Bible Status of Woman. New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1926
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Stagg, Evelyn and Frank. Woman in the World of Jesus. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Nicole, Roger. "Biblical Egalitarianism and the Inerrancy of Scripture." Priscilla Papers, Vol. 20, No. 2. Spring 2006
  4. From misunderstanding of the phrase an help meet for him, a helper suitable for him (Adam), in Genesis 2:18, referring to Eve. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, 2003.
  5. Smith, Russell E. Jr. "Adam's Fall." ELH: a Journal of English Literary History, Vol. 35, No. 4 (Dec., 1968), pp. 527-539
  6. Quoted in Tanner, Stephen L. Women in Literature of the Old Testament. University of Idaho, 1975. ERIC ED112422.
  7. Tanner, Stephen L. Women in Literature of the Old Testament. University of Idaho, 1975. ERIC ED112422.
  8. "Kinship in Ancient Israel." http://moses.creighton.edu/simkins/201/cmat/kinship.html
  9. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=187&letter=D Jewish Encyclopedia: Deborah
  10. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=187&letter=H Jewish Encyclopedia: Hulda
  11. Oppenheimer, Mike. “Women in the Old Testament.” http://www.letusreason.org/Pent45.htm Let Us Reason Ministries.
  12. Yoder, Christine Elizabeth] Wisdom as a Woman of Substance: A Socioeconomic Reading of Proverbs 1-9 and 31:10-31 (Beiheft Zur Zeitschrift Fur Die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft).
  13. The Woman's Bible By Elizabeth Cady Stanton, p. 53
  14. —Weitzman, Steven. In Hetrick, Judi. "Reading and interpretation: Bring the Bible to Life." Indiana UniversityResearch & Creative Activity. April 1998, Volume XXI, Number 1. [1]

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