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The Status of Women in the Bible

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We intended that each one of this series of posts would give a good example from "The Bible Now" of what is involved in seriously dealing with the Bible and five "hot" issues of our day in light of the advances in current Bible scholarship and archaeology. That is what we did in the last two posts, which dealt with abortion and homosexuality. This post, though, is the hardest. The subject is women's status. How on earth are we to choose a single text as an example? Should it be prose, poetry or law? Women are more than just one subject among many in the Bible. (Big surprise. They are, after all, half the people on earth.) And we're working only with the Hebrew Bible (also called the Old Testament) in these posts. We're not dealing with the New Testament, Church History, rabbinic interpretations or Christian doctrine, which are outside of our area of expertise.

The arguments over what the Bible has to teach about women's status are curious. Some people say that the Bible was enlightened for its time, a crucial step in an evolution (some would say a revolution) of women's status. Others say that males composed the Bible, that it was the product of patriarchal society, that it was the justification of such patriarchal society and that it has been one of the best-known contributors to maintaining an inferior status of women.

Both groups are reading the same book.

It's understandable. The book was composed by more than a hundred authors and editors (male and female) spread over a period of about a thousand years. So it gives mixed signals from the very beginning. In the Bible's first chapter, both man and woman are created in the image of God:

"God created the human in His image. He created it in the image of God; He created them male and female" (Genesis 1:27).

In terms of equality of the sexes, that sounds pretty close to definitive. But then the Garden of Eden story comes two chapters later, in which God tells woman:

"Your desire will be for your man, and he'll dominate you" (Genesis 3:16).

That looks pretty definitive as well. And this strange interspersing of sexual equality on one hand and male dominion on the other continues through the rest of the book.

Women can be prophets, but all 15 of the Bible's books of prophecy are about male prophets.

Women can be Nazirites, which are a kind of voluntary clergy, but only males can be priests.

An upper-class woman has privileges above those of some lower-class men, but all the rulers are kings except for one case of a queen who usurps the throne -- and is later killed!

Women can inherit property, but then special limits are imposed on them. (For more on this, see "The Bible Now," pp. 98-99.)

Males dominate the family, but women are depicted as acquiring power and influence through good means and bad: through their sons, through sex, through wisdom, through strength of character, through nagging, through lies or trickery, through love.

The book starts and ends with a woman playing a determinative role: Eve and Esther.

A woman (Eve) is the first human to say the name of God. (The name of God itself, Yahweh, is masculine. The feminine would be Tahweh.)

Now, the example we chose for this post is the case of the most under-appreciated woman (or, for that matter, the most under-appreciated person) in the Bible: Deborah.

You can read the Song of Deborah in Judges 5. This song celebrates a victory of Israelite tribes in a battle against a Canaanite army. It says that things were bad until Deborah arose.

Until you arose, Deborah,

you arose, Mother of Israel.

(Judges 5:7)

Israelite tribes follow her and a man named Barak (no relation to the President) to fight the battle. Now, this song pictures more than just a coalition of a few tribes. It names 10 of the 12 tribes of Israel. This is the first text known to us in which Israel is pictured as a united people in the land. Before this, Israel's origins historically are unknown; and in the Bible's story the people are in Egypt, not Canaan, prior to this. So for both the traditional believer and the critical skeptic, this is the period in which the history of Israel as a people in this land starts. The time is the 12th century B.C.E. This is the period when we first have archaeological evidence of the existence of the people of Israel, and it is the period of the events in the Song of Deborah, which is the oldest (or second oldest) text in the Bible. (The only thing that is possibly older is The Song of Miriam in Exodus 15. Of course, it's interesting that the two oldest texts in the Bible are both named for women.) As the biblical historian Baruch Halpern wrote, "For the period before Deborah, the time of Israel's formation, the evidence is utterly circumstantial -- insubstantial." That is: the first time in which we find Israel as a people existing in its land, they are led by a woman. There are many candidates for the title of "most under-appreciated person in the Bible," but Deborah must be the winner. When people are asked to name the great women of the Hebrew Bible, they very commonly begin with Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel. They are important, definitely, but they are all known in the first place as wives. The qualities for which they are praised occur in the stories of Genesis in connection with their husbands (and sons). Even for biblical women who are thought of more for their own significant roles, like Ruth and Esther, their stories start off with their marriages and then develop from there. But Deborah is different. Deborah stands out as a leader, as the first leader of Israel in the land. The song does not even mention a husband or father or son. Even more, the song identifies Deborah, the founding leader of Israel, by that phrase "Mother of (or: in) Israel." Biblical commentators have long treated this line as a touching sidelight. Isn't that nice: she was a great leader and judge, and she was also a good mom. She made the best chicken soup in Beth El. But, as Halpern was the first to point out, "mother of Israel" is more likely to be comparable to calling George Washington the father of the United States. An umma (a "mother's house") is a political unit, reflecting kinship. Halpern noted that the Song of Deborah reflects four of such ummot; that is, four political regions. He concluded: "Deborah is 'the mother of Israel,' all of it. She is the woman who united the four regions into full-brother unity, into a single umma." The biblical scholar Susan Ackerman, too, has emphasized the enormous importance of Deborah's leadership role. The reason why people have taken the verse to mean she was a good mother rather than a founding figure is a matter of a technical point of Hebrew grammar. (Warning: it gets a little technical here.) The phrase in Hebrew is em beyisra'el (Judges 5:7). The particle be in that word is a preposition that usually means "in." So translators usually have taken it to mean "mother in Israel." But prepositions are extremely fluid in Hebrew and are possibly the hardest words to translate, much as new speakers of English find it hard to master the use of prepositions: "I live in the house, by the store, near the street, at the corner of the block." Halpern observed that "of" is the meaning of the particle "be" elsewhere in the Song of Deborah:
  • In Judges 5:15, saray beyissakar is translated by nearly everyone as "the princes of Issachar."
  • In Judges 5:24, nashim ba'aohel can mean "women of the tent" as well as "women in the tent."
  • In another poem, hare baggilbo'a is commonly translated "mountains of Gilboa."
This meaning is a characteristic of early Hebrew poetry. Later the particle be does not have this meaning, so readers have misunderstood it. Instead of being the Mother of Israel, Deborah is taken to be a nice mom. Danna Nolan Fewell, trying to work with this image, wrote in "The Women's Bible Commentary" that "Her relationship to Israel has public dimensions, both religious and judicial, but it is not without its familial dimensions as well. Later she will be called a 'mother in Israel,' and in the context of this story one might well envision a Spartan mother who goads her children to fight." That is a stirring image, but Deborah's significance surpasses it by a factor of thousands. Another layer: The story of Deborah is written in prose. That prose account was written after the song, but then it was placed ahead of it. So now the story appears in Judges 4, and the Song of Deborah comes in Judges 5. So practically everyone who has ever read the song has seen it in the light of the story that precedes it. But that confuses the issue somewhat. The prose calls her a woman of lappidot. In Hebrew, as in other languages such as German and French, the word that means "woman" is also the word for "wife." The word lappidot means something like flames or flashes. So the phrase (Hebrew eshet lappidot) may mean that she was a "woman of flashes" -- meaning what? Or it may mean that she was the wife of someone named Lappidot. Some have gone so far as to say that Barak is Lappidot. Why? Because Barak in Hebrew means lightning, and lappidot means flashes. But that is a very long stretch, not to mention that the word lappidot is a feminine plural in Hebrew, so it is possible but unlikely to be a man's name. The inclination to turn Deborah into Mrs. Barak may be yet another case of identifying a biblical woman in terms of her husband -- precisely in the case of the most independently significant woman in the Hebrew Bible. And this is not a myth. This is history. One may have doubts about the stories of Genesis, about the specifics of the exodus account and especially about the stories of the conquest of cities in the book of Joshua, which are challenged by the archaeological evidence. But with Deborah we come to a truly ancient source, written in an extremely early stage of Hebrew, in a period in which we begin to have a verifiable archaeological record. There was a united people called Israel in the 12th century B.C.E., and their "Mother" was Deborah. When you weigh the Bible's positives and negatives and try to form a view of women's status overall in the Hebrew Bible, you must take into account this unexpected fact: that the political founder of Israel was a woman. We are not taking a side in the evaluation of that overall status. Indeed, our point is precisely the opposite: that there is so much material that favors either side that, in fact, taking either side becomes a trap. There's no denying that there are biblical laws, stories and poems that unquestionably favor men. And there's no denying that there are others that reflect rights for women that are not what we would have expected in the ancient Near East. We gave as many examples as possible in "The Bible Now." (It's the longest chapter in the book.) We've given you one here.

Around the Web

Women in the Bible - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Life Lessons from Women of the Bible - Beliefnet.com

Amazon.com: The Bible Now (9780195311631): Richard Elliott ...

Deborah - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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