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Christopher Rollston

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The Marginalization of Women: A Biblical Value We Don't Like to Talk About

Posted: 08/31/2012 8:03 am

Augusta National Golf Club finally accepts its first women members, and so a Leviathan of gender discrimination at long last makes a move in the right direction. Conversely, Todd Akin falsely states that a woman's body has biological mechanisms to prevent pregnancy in cases of something he refers to as "legitimate rape." One step forward, two steps back in our battle for women's rights. Sadly though, the marginalization of women has been going on for a long time. Some 2,000 years ago, a Hebrew sage named Ben Sira wrote "the birth of a daughter is a loss" and "better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good." Modern readers rightly label such words misogynistic. But they're part of the historical record and Ben Sira wasn't alone. From Mesopotamia to Egypt, women in the ancient world were considered property -- valuable property, but property nonetheless. And it's true of the Bible's view as well. Yes, there were biblical women who flourished in spite of the patriarchy, women like Ruth, Esther, Lydia and Priscilla. But women in the Bible were normally viewed as second class, if even that.

The Decalogue is a case in point. "You shall not covet your neighbor's house, you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male slave, his female slave, his ox, his donkey or anything which belongs to your neighbor" (Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:21). Because the Ten Commandments are so well known, it's quite easy to miss the assumptions in them about gender. But the marginalization of women is clear. The wife is classified as her husband's property, and so she's listed with the slaves and work-animals. There's also a striking omission in this commandment: never does it say "You shall not covet your neighbor's husband." The Ten Commandments were written to men, not women. There's even more evidence, linguistic in nature. Hebrew has four distinct forms of the word "you" and these are gender and number specific. The form of "you" in every single commandment is masculine singular. The text assumes its readers are men. True, mothers are mentioned in the Decalogue as deserving of honor, but even here the Hebrew grammar assumes a male readership: the Hebrew verb for "honor" is masculine singular (Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16). The Ten Commandments embody much that is foundational for modern society, but egalitarian they aren't.

Women are marginalized in the book of Proverbs as well. Quite a number of times Proverbs uses the phrase "my son." The phrase "my daughter" does not occur. And the commands in Proverbs are consistently second person masculine, never second person feminine. And the readership of the book of Proverbs is warned to beware of the evil seductress (e.g., Proverbs 5), but the reverse doesn't occur: never does the book warn women to beware of a male seducer. The authors say living with a contentious woman is terrible, but never say the same about a contentious man (Proverbs 25:24). The book was written to men, not women. True, there is a famous text in Proverbs which praises a "noble wife" (Proverbs 31:10-31). She is wise, benevolent, hard-working, an entrepreneur, and loved by her sons and husband (daughters are not mentioned). Readers are encouraged to find such a wife. But there is a subtle problem: there is no counterpart to the "noble wife" text, nothing in the book that encourages young women to find a noble husband. After all, men were the intended readers, not women.

The New Testament contains texts that marginalize women as well. Among the harshest of these texts is 1 Timothy 2. The author is discussing worship and begins by stating that "men should pray" and then says "women should dress themselves modestly and decently." So men are to pray and women are to dress modestly. That's quite a contrast. But there's more: "Let a woman learn in silence and full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to be silent." The author's rationale: "For Adam was formed first, then Eve, and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor" (1 Timothy 2:8-14). So, according to this text, women were to be silent in worship because they were created second and sinned first. And the final blow is this: a woman "will be saved through childbirth, if she remains in faith and love and sanctification with modesty" (1 Timothy 2:15). This text is not too different from a Saying in the Gospel of Thomas (114) that says women can be saved once they become males. In any case, for the author of 1 Timothy, eternal salvation comes obstetrically.

Of course, there are even more difficult texts, with men said to be willing to surrender women to horrendous violence. For example, Genesis says the patriarch Lot was willing to force his two daughters out the door to be raped, and the book of Judges says a Levite actually did force his concubine out the door to be gang raped, and after she died he cut her corpse into twelve pieces (Genesis 34; Judges 19-21). And an unmarried woman could be compelled to marry her rapist, as long as the rapist could pay the standard bride price and the woman's father was comfortable with the marriage (Deuteronomy 22:28-29; Exodus 22:16-17). And some fathers were comfortable, if Jacob is any indication (Genesis 34). And polygyny (a man having multiple wives) was approved of (Genesis 4:19-24; Deuteronomy 21:15; 2 Samuel 3:2-5). Some narratives even have wives referring to their husbands as "lord," such as Sarah in Genesis 18:12. And a woman's religious vow could be nullified by her father or her husband (Numbers 30:3-15). Within the "Household Codes" of the New Testament, husbands are commanded to "love their wives" and to avoid treating them "harshly," but women are commanded to "submit to" their husbands (Colossians 3:18-19; Ephesians 5:22-25). And the custom of a marital "bride price" (money given by the groom's family to the bride's family) reveals that marriage was, at least in some respects, a property transfer, as payment had been made to acquire the bride (Genesis 34:12; Exodus 22:16; 1 Samuel 18:25; Genesis 24:53).

Thankfully, some biblical authors who pushed back against the marginalization of women. For example, according to the Bible, Job had seven sons and three daughters and the writer of the book of Job actually names those daughters but not the sons, a reversal of standard practice. Also, these daughters "received an inheritance along with their brothers," wonderfully subverting the standard legal practice of not giving daughters a share of the family land (Job 42). And the ancients who penned the stunning narratives about Deborah (Judges 4-5) and Huldah (2 Kings 22:14-20) were pushing back against patriarchy as well. The New Testament Paul was quite progressive for his time, as he considered Phoebe to be a "deacon" and Junia to be "preeminent among the apostles" (Romans 16:1, 7). He also wrote: "there is no longer male nor female" (Galatians 3:27). But these voices were the exception, not the rule.

People today often wish to turn to sacred literature for timeless trues about social norms. This impulse is certainly understandable. But that impulse can be fraught with certain difficulties. After all, to embrace the dominant biblical view of women would be to embrace the marginalization of women. And sacralizing patriarchy is just wrong. Gender equality may not have been the norm two or three millennia ago, but it is essential. So, the next time someone refers to "biblical values," it's worth mentioning to them that the Bible often marginalized women and that's not something anyone should value.

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  • Vashti: Refuses to Be a Trophy Queen (With Drastic Consequences)

    The Purim story begins in the palace of Shushan with King Ahasuerus and his wife, Queen Vashti, hosting separate men and women's feasts for the people of the town. After seven straight days of partying, the King sends for the Queen, commanding her to appear, wearing her royal crown, to parade her beauty before the men's feast. Vashti refuses. A classic commentary explains her reluctance by saying that the King asked her to appear "wearing only her crown," though that's not in the original text. The King is horrified at her refusal and consults his adviser, who points out that if Vashti is punished, all the women of the kingdom will get the wrong idea and begin to look down on their husbands. So Queen Vashti gets booted out of the castle, and for good measure, the King sends out a decree that man is the master of the home. Vashti's story doesn't end in triumph -- she was a few thousand years before her time, perhaps -- but I have admire the woman's principles.

  • Esther: Beauty Is Power

    With Vashti gone, Ahasuerus needs a new queen, and he decides to choose his wife by inviting the virgins of his kingdom to compete in a beauty pageant. One of these young women is Esther, also called Hadassah, a Jewish orphan being raised by her uncle, Mordechai. Esther joins the other contestants for full year of beauty treatments, and at the end, the King selects her as the winner. As instructed by her uncle Mordechai, Queen Esther never reveals her Jewish roots. Some time later, Esther finds out that her people are in danger: The King's evil adviser Haman, infuriated by Mordechai's refusal to bow down to him, has recommended that the king kill all the Jews. Mordechai calls upon Esther to help, sending her a pointed message that if the massacre occurs, she shouldn't expect to be spared, and perhaps this was the very reason she had risen to such a position of power. Despite the risks (after all, her husband has already shown himself to be intolerant of uppity wives) Queen Esther embarks on a complicated diplomatic effort. Through a series of planned feasts, subtle hints and well-timed revelations, she convinces the King to rescind his decree. She saves her people, and the evil Haman is punished.

  • Tamar: Seduction With a Purpose

    Bear with me on this one. The setup is complicated, but the story is worth it. Tamar is a young widow whose first husband, Er, has died and left her childless. According to custom, Er's father Judah arranges for Tamar to marry his second son, Onan, to provide her with a child who will carry on Er's name. Onan, however, displeases God (with onanism, actually) and dies without giving Tamar a child, at which point she should by law be entitled to marry the next brother in line, Shelah. But Judah, afraid to lose a third son, keeps Shelah away from Tamar, putting her in an tremendously vulnerable position as a childless widow. One day, Tamar hears that Judah will be traveling north. She veils herself in the manner of a prostitute and sits at a major crossroads waiting for him to pass by. When he does, he solicits her services, but says he has no payment on him. Tamar insists that he leave his cord, seal and staff -- the personal ID of the day -- with her as collateral. Judah agrees and spends the night with this mysterious prostitute, having no idea it's his double-ex-daughter-in-law. But when Judah sends a servant to pay the woman and retrieve his ID items, she is nowhere to be found. Three months later, Tamar reveals that she is pregnant. Judah's response is that she should be burned alive for harlotry. Tamar appears with Judah's ID items and says, "I am with child by the man who owns these." And to his credit, Judah immediately admits his wrong and apologizes. Tamar becomes the mother of twins, and it's worth noting that from those twins will eventually come the lineage of King David and the Messiah.

  • Miriam: Early Rock Star

    Miriam, the older sister of Moses, is the first female prophet. She has a remarkably active role in the redemption from Egypt: as a girl, she saves her little brother's life at least once; after crossing the sea, she leads the women in song; and during the 40 years of desert wandering, she provides the Israelites with water. (Miriam also endures a seemingly unfair episode, mid-desert-wandering, when she's stricken with leprosy after criticizing Moses; elsewhere I've focused on that moment, but here I'll focus on the positive and celebrate her leadership.) Miriam's two-verse song at the sea is considered by many scholars to be among the oldest words of Torah. The fact that the text preserves the image of a woman leading a song, and the words of that song, especially when Moses has already led a full song of his own -- all of these make Miriam the first rock star of Torah.

  • Judith: Wins a War Armed With Only Cheese and Wine

    Full disclosure: the story of Judith is in some Bibles and not others. The book containing Judith's story is apocryphal in Judaism and Protestant Christianity, meaning it didn't make it into the core Jewish Bible of those traditions. Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians do include it. But it's still part of the broader Jewish text-family. In fact, the rabbis connect this story to Hanukkah. And Judith herself is just too badass to leave out of this list. Judith is a beautiful young widow; her husband died unexpectedly three years ago, and she's been in mourning ever since. It's a time of war, and her city is surrounded by the enemy army, who are preventing supplies from coming in. The children are starting to starve, and all the men in power say it's time to surrender and that it must be God's will. Judith hears this and asks them to let her try one thing before they surrender. Judith takes off her sackcloth and ashes, dresses in her finest clothes, and grabs a bag with some salty cheese and wine. Under cover of darkness, Judith and her maid sneak out of the city and straight into the enemy army's camp. It takes a while, but they eventually manage to reach the tent of the general Holofernes himself, using Judith's good looks and false promises of information. As her maid waits outside, Judith sits down beside Holofernes in his tent. She feeds him bits of salty cheese until he grows thirsty; then, sips of wine until he grows tired; then, as he drifts off to sleep, she takes his own sword from the bedpost and cuts off his head. Judith brings the head back to her city, where they hang it on the gate. When the enemy soldiers wake up and see Holofernes up there, they flee, and the war is won. Definitely badass, but the story extends into art history. Judith with the head of Holofernes was a favorite subject of Old Masters painters. Among them was a woman, Artemesia Gentilleschi, who was the victim of a rape. In <a href="" target="_hplink">Gentilleschi's painting</a> (pictured here), Judith looks a lot like the artist -- and the beheaded general bears an uncanny resemblance to her rapist.

  • Shira and Puah: Midwives Committing Acts of Civil Disobedience

    In Egypt, Pharoah devises numerous methods of oppressing the Jews. One of the most violent is attempted infanticide. Pharoah calls the Israelite midwives, Shifrah and Puah. He instructs them to allow newborn girls to live, but to kill any boys immediately. Shifrah and Puah, though, disobey Pharoah's order. They save the boys, and when Pharoah calls for an explanation, Shifrah and Puah explain that the Israelite women give birth so quickly that the babies arrive before the midwives, giving them no chance to kill the babies. This answer seems to satisfy Pharoah. He moves on to other murderous tactics, but thanks to the midwives' act of quiet resistance, a next generation of male Israelites survives infancy -- including Moses, future leader of the Exodus.

  • Yael: Another Woman in Wartime Armed With Beverage and Sharp Object

    What are the chances? Quite similar to Judith, except this story is alcohol-free. In this war story, the female general and prophetess Deborah has already predicted that the enemy would be delivered into the hands of a woman. The Israelites indeed win the battle and the enemy general, Sisera, is fleeing. Yael, wife of Heber, invites him into her tent. He's thirsty and asks for water, and instead she gives him milk. Sisera falls asleep on the floor and Yael drives a tent-peg through his head with a hammer. Gruesome, yes, but definitely bad-ass.