Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Women in Joshua, Judges, and Ruth

The next three books of the Bible tell stories set in Israel during the period of tribalism and chaos before the establishment of the kingship under Saul, David and Solomon.  Joshua tells of the conquest of Israel, and Judges of a series of heroes and (for our purposes more important) heroines who arose to defend the Jewish tribes against their pagan enemies.  Ruth, the first book of the Bible dedicated to a private family, surprisingly makes the hero of that story a mother-in-law, a class of persons who remain marginalized and reviled to this day! 

The Pentateuch, we saw, contained some 65 stories or pieces of legislation involving women.  These three books contain thirteen more such stories, including a whole book premised on the warm friendship between two women.

(66) A Hooker Helps Israel

Joshua 2. 1-21: "Then Joshua son of Nun secretly sent two spies from Shittim. “Go, look over the land,” he said, “especially Jericho.” So they went and entered the house of a prostitute named Rahab and stayed there.  The king of Jericho was told, “Look, some of the Israelites have come here tonight to spy out the land.”  So the king of Jericho sent this message to Rahab: “Bring out the men who came to you and entered your house, because they have come to spy out the whole land.”  But the woman had taken the two men and hidden them. She said, “Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they had come from.  At dusk, when it was time to close the city gate, they left. I don’t know which way they went. Go after them quickly. You may catch up with them.”   (But she had taken them up to the roof and hidden them under the stalks of flax she had laid out on the roof.)   So the men set out in pursuit of the spies on the road that leads to the fords of the Jordan, and as soon as the pursuers had gone out, the gate was shut.  Before the spies lay down for the night, she went up on the roof and said to them, “I know that the Lord has given you this land and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you.   We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed.   When we heard of it, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.

“'Now then, please swear to me by the Lord that you will show kindness to my family, because I have shown kindness to you. Give me a sure sign that you will spare the lives of my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them—and that you will save us from death.'

“'Our lives for your lives!' the men assured her. “If you don’t tell what we are doing, we will treat you kindly and faithfully when the Lord gives us the land.”

 "So she let them down by a rope through the window, for the house she lived in was part of the city wall.   She said to them, “Go to the hills so the pursuers will not find you. Hide yourselves there three days until they return, and then go on your way.”  Now the men had said to her, “This oath you made us swear will not be binding on us unless, when we enter the land, you have tied this scarlet cord in the window through which you let us down, and unless you have brought your father and mother, your brothers and all your family into your house.   If any of them go outside your house into the street, their blood will be on their own heads; we will not be responsible. As for those who are in the house with you, their blood will be on our head if a hand is laid on them.   But if you tell what we are doing, we will be released from the oath you made us swear. “Agreed,” she replied. “Let it be as you say.”  So she sent them away, and they departed. And she tied the scarlet cord in the window."

From the Hebrew perspective, this story is unambiguously about a heroine, a strong female figure who follows world events, runs a "business," and takes the initiative to save not only herself, but her whole family, in the face of danger.  (She is, furthermore, a foreigner and originally a pagan, though she recognizes God's power.)

From a politically-neutral point of view, though, her story seems to raise questions.  First, was she a prostitute or an inn-keeper?  Not that the two are at odds, but the kind of woman who combined the two occupations in modern times might be called a "madame."  Running a one-woman brothel from a home in which her father and mother, indeed a good part of the clan, live, seems a little bizarre.  One wonders about the rest of the story. 

Second, was Rahab a traitor?  She harbors enemies of her city who come to destroy the place, and whose allies ultimately kill all her neighbors. 

Of course, if Rahab and her family had been forced into their occupation in some way, her decision to save only her family, and her alienation from the society in which she makes a living, might make some sense.  Prostitutes often come from ethnic minorities or the under-class, so she may have already resented the society in which she plied her occupation(s). 

We don't have the answers to those questions.  All we have is the story of a strong but alienated woman who, for whatever reason, risked her life to ally with the people of God against her own city, and thus saved the lives of her family. 

(66) Joshua is described as annihilating everyone in certain cities, not saving young women in this case. 

(67) A Husband, and Running Water, Too

15. 16-19: "And Caleb said, “I will give my daughter Aksah in marriage to the man who attacks and captures Kiriath Sepher.”  Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s brother, took it; so Caleb gave his daughter Aksah to him in marriage.  One day when she came to Othniel, she urged him to ask her father for a field. When she got off her donkey, Caleb asked her, “What can I do for you?”
 She replied, “Do me a special favor. Since you have given me land in the Negev, give me also springs of water.” So Caleb gave her the upper and lower springs."

Caleb exhibits what seems to me a strange combination of consideration and lack thereof for her daughter.  But as with the daughters of Zelophehad in Numbers 27, the woman is assertive in asking, and she gets what she wants.  Apparently God isn't asking women to be doormats. 


(67) 1.12-15: "And Caleb said, “I will give my daughter Aksah in marriage to the man who attacks and captures Kiriath Sepher.”  Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother, took it; so Caleb gave his daughter Aksah to him in marriage.   One day when she came to Othniel, she urged him to ask her father for a field. When she got off her donkey, Caleb asked her, “What can I do for you?”

She replied, “Do me a special favor. Since you have given me land in the Negev, give me also springs of water.” So Caleb gave her the upper and lower springs."

A repeat of the story in Joshua 15. 

(68) Two Heroines

4.4-22: "Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time.   She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided.   She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead them up to Mount Tabor.   I will lead Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.’”  

" Barak said to her, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.”

 “'Certainly I will go with you,” said Deborah. “But because of the course you are taking, the honor will not be yours, for the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” So Deborah went with Barak to Kedesh.  There Barak summoned Zebulun and Naphtali, and ten thousand men went up under his command. Deborah also went up with him.

Now Heber the Kenite had left the other Kenites, the descendants of Hobab, Moses’ brother-in-law, and pitched his tent by the great tree in Zaanannim near Kedesh.

When they told Sisera that Barak son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor,  Sisera summoned from Harosheth Haggoyim to the Kishon River all his men and his nine hundred chariots fitted with iron.

Then Deborah said to Barak, “Go! This is the day the Lord has given Sisera into your hands. Has not the Lord gone ahead of you?” So Barak went down Mount Tabor, with ten thousand men following him.   At Barak’s advance, the Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots and army by the sword, and Sisera got down from his chariot and fled on foot.

Barak pursued the chariots and army as far as Harosheth Haggoyim, and all Sisera’s troops fell by the sword; not a man was left.  Sisera, meanwhile, fled on foot to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, because there was an alliance between Jabin king of Hazor and the family of Heber the Kenite.    Jael went out to meet Sisera and said to him, “Come, my lord, come right in. Don’t be afraid.” So he entered her tent, and she covered him with a blanket.
“I’m thirsty,” he said. “Please give me some water.”  She opened a skin of milk, gave him a drink, and covered him up.

“Stand in the doorway of the tent,” he told her. “If someone comes by and asks you, ‘Is anyone in there?’ say ‘No.’”

But Jael, Heber’s wife, picked up a tent peg and a hammer and went quietly to him while he lay fast asleep, exhausted.  She drove the peg through his temple into the ground, and he died.

Just then Barak came by in pursuit of Sisera, and Jael went out to meet him. “ Come,” she said, “I will show you the man you’re looking for.”  So he went in with her, and there lay Sisera with the tent peg through his temple—dead."

This chapter features two heroines, one of whom is not just a heroine, she is the judge and leader of Israel.   She tries to gender-shame a male general into leading arms against the enemy, but he refuses to go without her.  So Deborah is not merely a prophetess of God, she also serves as a military commander or at least aid to the official commander.   Compared to even more famous but unreliable judges like Samson and Gideon, Deborah comes off well. 

The other heroine here, like the prostitute in Jericho, takes Israel's side against what appear to be her own people.  Jael takes bloody measures to ensure her family's safety.  Deborah remains a popular female name to this day (including my cousin), while the name of Jael has been forgotten, perhaps for the better. 

(69) Songs of the Two Heroines (+ Barak)

Deborah and Barak are then given an entire chapter to sing a song of praise to God for their victory.   Chapter Six contains some lyrics of relevance.

5.1-3, 6-7, 12, 15: "On that day Deborah and Barak son of Abinoam sang this song:

“When the princes in Israel take the lead,
    when the people willingly offer themselves—
    praise the Lord!
“Hear this, you kings! Listen, you rulers!
    I, even I, will sing to the Lord;
    I will praise the Lord, the God of Israel, in song . . .

“In the days of Shamgar son of Anath,    in the days of Jael, the highways were abandoned;
    travelers took to winding paths.
  Villagers in Israel would not fight;
    they held back until I, Deborah, arose,
    until I arose, a mother in Israel . . .

‘Wake up, wake up, Deborah!    Wake up, wake up, break out in song!
Arise, Barak!
    Take captive your captives, son of Abinoam . . . '

The princes of Issachar were with Deborah . . . "

Nor was our second heroine, Jael, neglected in the songs of praise.  (Though this song ends on a realistic, but troubling, note):   

5.24-30: "Most blessed of women be Jael,    the wife of Heber the Kenite,
    most blessed of tent-dwelling women.
 He asked for water, and she gave him milk;
    in a bowl fit for nobles she brought him curdled milk.
 Her hand reached for the tent peg,
    her right hand for the workman’s hammer.
She struck Sisera, she crushed his head,
    she shattered and pierced his temple.
 At her feet he sank,
    he fell; there he lay.
At her feet he sank, he fell;
    where he sank, there he fell—dead.

“Through the window peered Sisera’s mother;
    behind the lattice she cried out,
‘Why is his chariot so long in coming?
    Why is the clatter of his chariots delayed?’
The wisest of her ladies answer her;
    indeed, she keeps saying to herself,
 ‘Are they not finding and dividing the spoils:
    a woman or two for each man . . . "

So women are both heroines and "spoils" in this story.  The latter role, of course, was the norm in ancient battle, and remains the norm in some societies today.  (Or all societies, to different degrees.  Even UN peace-keepers in modern Africa often seem to regard the local women in that light.)   

(70) Another Female Fighter

9.52-54: "Abimelek went to the tower and attacked it. But as he approached the entrance to the tower to set it on fire,  a woman dropped an upper millstone on his head and cracked his skull.
Hurriedly he called to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and kill me, so that they can’t say, ‘A woman killed him.’” So his servant ran him through, and he died. "

Here again men are depicted as being ashamed, or needing to be ashamed, of losing in battle or being outshone in battle by a woman.  That is, perhaps, universal. 

(71) A Family Tragedy

11.34-40: " When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh no, my daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the Lord that I cannot break.

My father,” she replied, “you have given your word to the Lord. Do to me just as you promised, now that the Lord has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites.   But grant me this one request,” she said. “Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.” “You may go,” he said. And he let her go for two months. She and her friends went into the hills and wept because she would never marry.  After the two months, she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin.  From this comes the Israelite tradition that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite."

Twice in the Old Testament a soldier makes a vow to sacrifice whatever comes out of the house to greet him after he wins a battle, and in both cases it is his child who emerges.  But in the other case, the soldiers talk the general out of fulfilling his vow, with no harmful consequences.  So it is unlikely that the moral here is, "Make rash vows to God and then fulfill them."  Nor is it, "This is a bad man because he fulfilled a rash vow." 

The daughter is remarkable for her calm response.   Of course, this was an age in which sudden death often came to young men in battle and to young women in childbirth, or to either when an epidemic swept through.   Anyway, this story constitutes an interesting excuse to let the girls have a four day camping trip together every year.  One woman lost her life through one man's stupidity: thousands gained a better one.

Some commentators translate this passage in such a way as to deny that any sacrifice took place, and most recognize Jephthah as contravening God's law, some saying he was punished for his crime.  Judges tends to tell its stories in a detached way, though the ending -- as we shall see -- puts those stories in a critical context. 

(72)  Samson's Parents Get the News

13. 1-14: "A certain man of Zorah, named Manoah, from the clan of the Danites, had a wife who was childless, unable to give birth.  The angel of the Lord appeared to her and said, “You are barren and childless, but you are going to become pregnant and give birth to a son.   Now see to it that you drink no wine or other fermented drink and that you do not eat anything unclean.   You will become pregnant and have a son whose head is never to be touched by a razor because the boy is to be a Nazirite, dedicated to God from the womb. He will take the lead in delivering Israel from the hands of the Philistines.”   Then the woman went to her husband and told him, “A man of God came to me. He looked like an angel of God, very awesome. I didn’t ask him where he came from, and he didn’t tell me his name.   But he said to me, ‘You will become pregnant and have a son. Now then, drink no wine or other fermented drink and do not eat anything unclean, because the boy will be a Nazirite of God from the womb until the day of his death.’”   Then Manoah prayed to the Lord: “Pardon your servant, Lord. I beg you to let the man of God you sent to us come again to teach us how to bring up the boy who is to be born.”  God heard Manoah, and the angel of God came again to the woman while she was out in the field; but her husband Manoah was not with her. The woman hurried to tell her husband, “He’s here! The man who appeared to me the other day!” . . .

The angel of the Lord answered, “Your wife must do all that I have told her.  She must not eat anything that comes from the grapevine, nor drink any wine or other fermented drink nor eat anything unclean. She must do everything I have commanded her.'”

13.21-24:  "When the angel of the Lord did not show himself again to Manoah and his wife, Manoah realized that it was the angel of the Lord.  “We are doomed to die!” he said to his wife. “We have seen God!”  But his wife answered, “If the Lord had meant to kill us, he would not have accepted a burnt offering and grain offering from our hands, nor shown us all these things or now told us this.”   The woman gave birth to a boy and named him Samson. He grew and the Lord blessed him . . ."

In this story, the angel of God appears twice to the woman, who appears to be the smarter of the two, but only once to the man.  These are the parents of the dysfunctional prophet Samson, powerful in body but weak in will.

(73) Samson's Adventures with Women

In Chapter 14, Samson falls in love with a Philistine woman.  His parents object, but he insists.  On a visit to her, he kills a lion, then later finds a bee's nest in the lion's corpse, and scoops some honey out to eat.  He tells the locals a riddle about the honey from the lion, which they cannot guess.  To avoid paying the prize they had promised (clothing), they threaten Samson's wife, saying they'll burn down her house with her family in it if she doesn't pry the secret out of her hubby. 

"Then Samson’s wife threw herself on him, sobbing, “You hate me! You don’t really love me. You’ve given my people a riddle, but you haven’t told me the answer.”

“I haven’t even explained it to my father or mother,” he replied, “so why should I explain it to you?”   She cried the whole seven days of the feast. So on the seventh day he finally told her, because she continued to press him. She in turn explained the riddle to her people.  Before sunset on the seventh day the men of the town said to him,

“What is sweeter than honey?
    What is stronger than a lion?”
Samson said to them,
“If you had not plowed with my heifer,
    you would not have solved my riddle.”

 Then the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon him. He went down to Ashkelon, struck down thirty of their men, stripped them of everything and gave their clothes to those who had explained the riddle. Burning with anger, he returned to his father’s home. And Samson’s wife was given to one of his companions who had attended him at the feast."

This story sets the pattern for the women in Samson's life.  He is a man who can't control his sexual appetite, and who repeatedly goes for foreign women of weak morals and divided loyalties. 

No doubt this pattern fits into the larger Old Testament theme decrying the Hebrew tendency to hook up with foreign women and adopt their degenerate standards. 

(74-5) Power of the Nag: Samson and Delilah

This is probably the most famous story in Judges, in part because of the kinky ambivalence of the "love affair" between the Jew Samson and the Philistine Delilah.  The story also seems to contain an element of humor: "Nag, nag, nag," as Clint Eastwood put it.  But it begins with an overture, reminding us of Samson's on-going tendency to fall for the wrong women. 

Image result for samson deliliah
16. 1-20: "One day Samson went to Gaza, where he saw a prostitute. He went in to spend the night with her.  The people of Gaza were told, “Samson is here!” So they surrounded the place and lay in wait for him all night at the city gate. They made no move during the night, saying, “At dawn we’ll kill him.”

"But Samson lay there only until the middle of the night.  Then he got up and took hold of the doors of the city gate, together with the two posts, and tore them loose, bar and all. He lifted them to his shoulders and carried them to the top of the hill that faces Hebron.

"Some time later, he fell in love with a woman in the Valley of Sorek whose name was Delilah.  The rulers of the Philistines went to her and said, “See if you can lure him into showing you the secret of his great strength and how we can overpower him so we may tie him up and subdue him. Each one of us will give you eleven hundred shekels of silver.”

"So Delilah said to Samson, “Tell me the secret of your great strength and how you can be tied up and subdued.”  Samson answered her, “If anyone ties me with seven fresh bowstrings that have not been dried, I’ll become as weak as any other man.” Then the rulers of the Philistines brought her seven fresh bowstrings that had not been dried, and she tied him with them.  With men hidden in the room, she called to him, “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!” But he snapped the bowstrings as easily as a piece of string snaps when it comes close to a flame. So the secret of his strength was not discovered. 

"Then Delilah said to Samson, “You have made a fool of me; you lied to me. Come now, tell me how you can be tied.”

"He said, “If anyone ties me securely with new ropes that have never been used, I’ll become as weak as any other man.”

"So Delilah took new ropes and tied him with them. Then, with men hidden in the room, she called to him, “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!” But he snapped the ropes off his arms as if they were threads.

"Delilah then said to Samson, “All this time you have been making a fool of me and lying to me. Tell me how you can be tied.”

"He replied, “If you weave the seven braids of my head into the fabric on the loom and tighten it with the pin, I’ll become as weak as any other man.” So while he was sleeping, Delilah took the seven braids of his head, wove them into the fabric and tightened it with the pin.  Again she called to him, “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!” He awoke from his sleep and pulled up the pin and the loom, with the fabric. 

"Then she said to him, “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when you won’t confide in me? This is the third time you have made a fool of me and haven’t told me the secret of your great strength.  With such nagging she prodded him day after day until he was sick to death of it.  So he told her everything. “No razor has ever been used on my head,” he said, “because I have been a Nazirite dedicated to God from my mother’s womb. If my head were shaved, my strength would leave me, and I would become as weak as any other man.”

"When Delilah saw that he had told her everything, she sent word to the rulers of the Philistines, “Come back once more; he has told me everything.”  So the rulers of the Philistines returned with the silver in their hands.   After putting him to sleep on her lap, she called for someone to shave off the seven braids of his hair, and so began to subdue him.  And his strength left him.

 "Then she called, “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!”

"He awoke from his sleep and thought, 'I’ll go out as before and shake myself free.” But he did not know that the Lord had left him.'"

Delilah proves Samson's undoing, but also that of thousands of Philistines, after Samson's power has returned to him. 

No doubt Samson's story reflects widespread feeling among males about what a force for evil female nagging can be.  But at most it can be taken as criticism of Samson's own choices in women, and warning against following his bad example, not against women in general. 

(76)  Rape and Genocide

Three chapters later comes a story about a Levite and his concubine so horrible, and so strange, that in his book The God Delusion, the famous atheist Richard Dawkins used it to illustrate the supposed immorality and weirdness of the Bible.  I deconstruct his rather sense-deprived misread of this passage in The Truth Behind the New Atheism. 

The text certainly says something about the status of women in that era.  Here we follow the story to see what, if any, light it sheds on how the Jewish canon dealt with the gender status quo.   

19.1-3: "In those days Israel had no king.  Now a Levite who lived in a remote area in the hill country of Ephraim took a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah.  But she was unfaithful to him.
She left him and went back to her parents’ home in Bethlehem, Judah.  After she had been there four months,  her husband went to her to persuade her to return.  He had with him his servant and two donkeys. She took him into her parents’ home, and when her father saw him, he gladly welcomed him."

19.23-29: "The owner of the house went outside and said to them, “No, my friends, don’t be so vile.  Since this man is my guest, don’t do this outrageous thing.   Look, here is my virgin daughter, and his concubine.   I will bring them out to you now, and you can use them and do to them whatever you wish.  But as for this man, don’t do such an outrageous thing.”  But the men would not listen to him.  So the man took his concubine and sent her outside to them, and they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go.   At daybreak the woman went back to the house where her master was staying, fell down at the door and lay there until daylight.  When her master got up in the morning and opened the door of the house and stepped out to continue on his way, there lay his concubine, fallen in the doorway of the house, with her hands on the threshold.   He said to her, “Get up; let’s go.” But there was no answer.  Then the man put her on his donkey and set out for home.   When he reached home, he took a knife and cut up his concubine, limb by limb, into twelve parts and sent them into all the areas of Israel.   Everyone who saw it was saying to one another, “Such a thing has never been seen or done, not since the day the Israelites came up out of Egypt.  Just imagine!  We must do something!  So speak up!

This story is bookended by markers meant to let the reader know, if he does not recognize it himself, the all-pervading horror of what happened.  There was no king in those days: indeed, this series of events reflects the free-wheeling, anarchical state of society at the time.  (Though Samuel will warn, accurately, that kingship and the more heavy-handed bureaucratic state it implied would bring troubles of its own.) 

One has to ask if the author is adequately disgusted by the Taliban-like attitude of the "kind" housekeeper and his guest: "Here, rape our two girls through the night, just don't touch the man."  This is Lot's suggestion, too, though it was turned down in that case.  This reflects not only a low view of women, but also a high view of hospitality.  Still, one should differentiate between the perpetrators and the weak men who (like Abraham, already) hide behind their women.   

No doubt the Levite and his concubine already had problems: she had been unfaithful and the couple had separated.  It is hard to fathom the perversity of a culture in which a man who seems kind could yet offer his own daughter to be gang-raped to protect a stranger.  Then  in the morning, the Levite coldly calls his woman to come, she doesn't come because she's dead already, so he cuts her to bits and ships her (no refrigeration, mind you) to all corners of the kingdom in protest.  This ignites a war in which the tribe of Benjamin (where this horror occurred, and which defends the offending village) is almost wiped off the map.  But one clan doesn't fight, so it in turn it destroyed.  Which leads to yet another horror:

(77)  Rape of the Jewish Sabines

21: 10-22: "So the assembly sent twelve thousand fighting men with instructions to go to Jabesh Gilead and put to the sword those living there, including the women and children.   “This is what you are to do,” they said. “Kill every male and every woman who is not a virgin.”   They found among the people living in Jabesh Gilead four hundred young women who had never slept with a man, and they took them to the camp at Shiloh in Canaan . . .  But there were not enough for all of them.  The people grieved for Benjamin, because the Lord had made a gap in the tribes of Israel.   And the elders of the assembly said, “With the women of Benjamin destroyed, how shall we provide wives for the men who are left?  The Benjamite survivors must have heirs,” they said, “so that a tribe of Israel will not be wiped out.   We can’t give them our daughters as wives, since we Israelites have taken this oath: ‘Cursed be anyone who gives a wife to a Benjamite.’   But look, there is the annual festival of the Lord in Shiloh, which lies north of Bethel, east of the road that goes from Bethel to Shechem, and south of Lebonah.”   So they instructed the Benjamites, saying, “Go and hide in the vineyards and watch. When the young women of Shiloh come out to join in the dancing, rush from the vineyards and each of you seize one of them to be your wife.  Then return to the land of Benjamin.   When their fathers or brothers complain to us, we will say to them, ‘Do us the favor of helping them, because we did not get wives for them during the war. You will not be guilty of breaking your oath because you did not give your daughters to them.’”

Plutarch tells a similar story of the founding of Rome and the rape of the Sabines. 

All of this seems marginally comprehensible only in light of the last verse of the book:

"In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit."

Richard Dawkins relates the story of the rape of the concubine, suggesting that the Bible affirms this horrible act.  That is poor exegesis: the author does no such thing.  The entire book is told with remarkable detachment: in general, well-rounded heroes are in short supply, and even those whom God calls for some purpose, are sometimes deeply flawed human beings.  They are sons of prostitutes or prone to chasing prostitutes and foreign women.   They are petulant and bad-tempered, cowardly and even given to idol-worship.  It seems that part of the social background to the book is a world in which women were deemed expendable, yet could also lead armies, take the initiative, and hear from God.

It's a free-wheeling, Wild-West social environment.  I argue that what the Old Testament accomplishes is to create a system, unique in the Near Middle East, in which tribal freedoms are somehow saved within a more "modern" kingdom with a strong ruler.   Prophets are a big part of that new system, providing checks and balances to the executive branch.

While the prophets both warned Israel against calling a king, and provided an on-going check against royal abuses, the final book in this section of Scripture suggests that God has been working behind the scenes to prepare for the greatest king -- through two women. 

(78) Ruth

The Book of Ruth is one of two books in the Old Testament which feature heroines.  There are only a few other books - Nehemiah, Ezra and Job, not counting the prophetic literature -- which focus on single heroic individuals.  Arguably Ruth and Esther prove every bit as heroic as Job, but with the difference that they both play key roles in the establishment or preservation of the nation of Israel.  (Ruth is the great-grandmother of the great King David, while Esther saves the Jewish people from genocide.)  Remarkably, Ruth is not herself Jewish, but Moabite --a people often depicted negatively in the Old Testament.  Coming soon after the story of Samson and his foreign lovers, Ruth thus reminds us that virtue is not limited to Jews, still less to men. 

Ruth is a gem of a short story, a mere four-chapter story about female friendship as well as romantic love.   A woman named Naomi travels with her husband and two sons from Bethlehem (yes, that Bethlehem) to Moab on the far side of the Dead Sea, to escape a famine.  But during Naomi's ten years in Moab, both her husband and sons die.  When she hears that conditions have improved in Israel, she determines to return home and live out her now sad and lonely life.  She tells her daughters-in-law:

“Return home, my daughters.  Why would you come with me?  Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands?  Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons— would you wait until they grew up?  Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!

" At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her."

Both young ladies loved their mother-in-law.  But Ruth loved her so much that she determined to accompany her back to Israel and face the cross-cultural challenges of living in foreign and rather xenophobic land:

"Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.  Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried."

Enter Boaz, a relative of Naomi.  Israel has a social welfare system which consists partly of requiring land-owners to leave some of the crops at harvest for the poor to glean.  (A heck of a system, in my opinion -- giving the poor the dignity of investing sweat equity, and saving the rich the trouble of being too picky!)   Boaz arrives at his fields with a godly greeting for his workers ("The Lord be with you!"), establishing what kind of person he is.  He notices Ruth, asks questions, learns about her kindness to Naomi, and begins telling his workers to leave her extra grain.  Under Naomi's guidance, Ruth then makes the next move, and a rather provocative move it seems -- sleeping "at his feet," whatever that may mean. 

By law, as a relative of her late husband, Boaz is responsible for redeeming the girl, or would be aside from one other relative.  After that relative disavows interest in Ruth, Boaz marries her, securing the future welfare of both women, not to mention keeping the family going.  

And what a family that proves to be!    It turns out that it was female initiative, pluck, and nobility, along with Boaz's righteous attitude, that established the great Davidic Dynasty, symbol of Israel's glory years, from which Jesus Christ himself is said to come. 

The Book of Ruth is almost unique among Old Testament books (aside maybe from Song of Songs) in having no real villain.  All three women in the story are depicted mostly favorably, though one daughter-in-law is unwilling to emigrate with Naomi.   Boaz is revealed as noble and godly.  The two chief women are shown as intelligent, spiritual, responsible, and kind, and their relationship is depicted as a beautiful thing, with both sacrificing to show love for the other.  At the same time, the dependence of women on men in a marriage relationship, and the potential for sexual harassment (which Naomi warns about), remind us subtly of the challenges single women faced in that era.

Women in the Torah

We continue our series on "How Jesus Liberates Women."  We are presently going through the Old Testament, to see how the Jewish tradition saw females.  The first post on the Old Testament analyzed 23 passages in the Book of Genesis involving women.  We found a wealth of fascinating stories, beginning with the creation of woman ("bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh"), the calling of Abraham and his wife Sarah, the love story between Isaac and Rebekah, sordid affairs and treachery of many kinds, polygamy, and then the final heroic figure of Joseph, the one man in the family who seemed to manage his love life reasonably well.  The overall impression, on my mind at least, is that women are no less heroic and no less involved in the establishment of God's kingdom in this world than men.  Indeed, while a few women so far are villains, and most are as flawed as the men, many are portrayed with sympathy.  I would say overall, the women come across better than the men, if one must make comparisons.  And they are no wall flowers.

We now look at the four other books of the Pentateuch.  About half of this material consists of stories, like Genesis, while the other half consists of laws and moral imprecations.  A total of 42 passages are cited and briefly analyzed in this post.  


(24) Gender Discrimination in Egypt

Exodus 1.15-22:   “When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.”   The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live.   Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, “Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?”  The midwives answered Pharaoh, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.”   So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous.   And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own.  Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: “Every Hebrew boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.”

In ancient Egypt, unlike modern Egypt (or India or China) gender discrimination and selection worked against Jewish men.   Jewish women thus play a heroic role in protecting young boys from a draconic (but perfectly understandable, given Survival of the Fittest) genocidal program.  This is a rare instance in the Bible in which a whole category of people - the midwives -- act with such heroism. 

(25)  Moses is Saved

Image result for moses in nileExodus 2: 1-10:  "Now a man of the tribe of Levi married a Levite woman,  and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son.  When she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him for three months.   But when she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile.   His sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him.  Then Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the Nile to bathe, and her attendants were walking along the riverbank. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her female slave to get it.   She opened it and saw the baby. He was crying, and she felt sorry for him. “This is one of the Hebrew babies,” she said.  Then his sister asked Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?” “Yes, go,” she answered. So the girl went and got the baby’s mother.   Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this baby and nurse him for me, and I will pay you.” So the woman took the baby and nursed him.  When the child grew older, she took him to Pharaoh’s daughter and he became her son. She named him Moses, saying, 'I drew him out of the water.”'

All the heroes in this story are female.  The mother takes the initiative to protect her son.  (What is the father doing?)  She then puts him in a little basket and sets him adrift on the Nile to try to save him, sending her daughter to watch.  An Egyptian woman then acts out of compassion to not only save Moses, but to raise him as a leader in the land.  (While his sister cleverly brings Mom back into the picture as nurse-maid.) 

(26) 2.16-21:  "Now a priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came to draw water and fill the troughs to water their father’s flock.   Some shepherds came along and drove them away, but Moses got up and came to their rescue and watered their flock."  They answered, “An Egyptian rescued us from the shepherds. He even drew water for us and watered the flock.” “And where is he?” Reuel asked his daughters. “Why did you leave him? Invite him to have something to eat.”  Moses agreed to stay with the man, who gave his daughter Zipporah to Moses in marriage.

Having been saved by three women, naturally enough, Moses is kind to women, saving them from being bullied at the public well.  One of them becomes Moses' wife. 

(27)  Plundering Egypt

3.22:  "Every woman is to ask her neighbor and any woman living in her house for articles of silver and gold and for clothing, which you will put on your sons and daughters. And so you will plunder the Egyptians.'”

The only acts of kindness between Egyptians and Jews involves sharing between women. 

(28) Zipporah saves her husband. 

4. 21-25: "The Lord said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.  Then say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, “Let my son go, so he may worship me.”  But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.’   At a lodging place on the way, the Lord met Moses and was about to kill him.   But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it.  “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,” she said.   So the Lord let him alone."

This is a very odd story, but it points to an under-appreciated fact. 

The "Angel of the Lord" is going, ultimately, too kill the first-born of Egypt.  Some verses seem to imply this means sons.  It is a fact, unfortunate for boys, that nations often seem them as more expendable than their sisters -- which is one reason (the other, of course, is talent!) that men usually fight a nation's wars.  They fight to protect their women and the children whom those women bear and raise.  

This story then represents a weighty form of "reverse discrimination" that it would be foolish and unfair to overlook.  Men are usually selected, throughout the Bible, for the most dangerous tasks, and die by the millions in performance of those tasks.  True, there is risk for the women. 

Sons were also being killed discriminatorily by the Egyptians -- a sin for which it was the Egyptians' fate to suffer consequences. 

The assumption of this story, which Zipporah and God share, is that blood pays for life.  It is an ancient and widespread idea, which merits more consideration than many moderns are willing to give it - an important notion in the national histories of countries like modern China, and in psychology, as I have pointed out in print. 

On a simpler level, this is yet another story of a heroine in the Bible, four out of the first five in Exodus.  Zipporah figures out what needs to be done before her husband, and gets it done.   

(29) 13.8:  "On that day tell your son, ‘I do this because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’"

"Fathers" and "sons" often represent the nation.  Though since the Exodus represented the salvation of Jewish men in particular, rites like circumcision and the Passover represented a taste of what the sons were being saved from in being liberated, and therefore acted performances aiding them in remembering. 

In the prophets, as we shall see however, nations are often represented as female. 

(30)  A female prophet

15. 20-21: "Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women followed her, with timbrels and dancing.  Miriam sang to them:

'Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. / Both horse and driver he has hurled into the sea.'”

So aside from (perhaps, if she was the same sister) saving her brother Moses in the basket, Miriam was both a singer and a "prophet."  She is also named on a level with Moses and Aaron by one of the prophets, as we shall see. 

(31) Statutes

20.12, 17: "Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you . . . You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor."

The first commandment "with a promise," as Jesus put it, is also the first among the Ten Commandments directed at how we should "love our neighbors as ourselves."  We should love all our neighbors, but begin with our own parents, both father and mother. 

True, the reader is assumed to be male.  (A fairly safe assumption, since men were far more likely to be literate.)  No reasonable person would fail to understand that a woman is also commanded not to covet her neighbor's husband, however: the moral responsibility of women is a frequent assumption of the Old Testament. 

(32)  On Manumitting a Man

21.4: "If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall belong to her master, and only the man shall go free."

This may be the first really difficult verse in the Bible on women.   Free a male slave, but keep his wife and children!  Perhaps being free, presumably he'll be in a position to buy the freedom of his family, if he works hard.  

But it is not my purpose to sugar-coat Scriptures here, merely to fairly consider what they say in context and in full.  Tough verses also need to go into the mix.

(33)  On Female Slaves

21. 7-11: “If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do.   If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her.  If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter.   If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights.  If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money."

The assumption seems to be that a man has contracted for a wife or concubine.  The law seems to be protecting her from being simply released after serving as his sex toy for a time.  He can't sell her down the river (or to the river), and she deserves her social and physical rights, or let her go. 

In a time in which starvation was common, this "last resort" of selling yourself as a servant to another probably saved many lives.  In our vastly richer times, it may seem simply and crudely immoral. I suspect that is unfair to the ancients.  Note that verse 16 sets the penalty for "kidnapping" (which can mean slave-trading, can it not?) as death. 

(34)  21. 15, 17: “Anyone who attacks their father or mother is to be put to death . . . Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death."

Father or mother.  One may wonder how this might apply to the children of abusive parents.  But there is no gender discrimination.

(35) Compensating Slaves for Injury

21. 22-28: "If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely, but if there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman's husband demands and the court allows.  But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life,  eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,  burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. “An owner who hits a male or female slave in the eye and destroys it must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye.  And an owner who knocks out the tooth of a male or female slave must let the slave go free to compensate for the tooth."

(36) 22. 16-17: “If a man seduces a virgin who is not pledged to be married and sleeps with her, he must pay the bride-price, and she shall be his wife.   If her father absolutely refuses to give her to him, he must still pay the bride-price for virgins."

Illegitimate birth would have been an even more tremendous burden on ancient mothers than on mothers in an age of washing machines, cars, and welfare checks.  This law is an act of compassion, as one may say about (35). 

(37) 22.22-24: “Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless.  If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry.  My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless."

This is the first of many verses in both parts of the Bible emphasizing the need to treat widows kindly, and the sin of oppressing them.  A highly practical issue in a society where subsistence agriculture was the norm. 

(38) 28.1: "Have Aaron your brother brought to you from among the Israelites, along with his sons Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, so they may serve me as priests."

Aside from serving as warriors, men are also called exclusively to serve as priests. 

(39) Women Donating

35.22-29: "All who were willing, men and women alike, came and brought gold jewelry of all kinds: brooches, earrings, rings and ornaments. They all presented their gold as a wave offering to the Lord . . . Every skilled woman spun with her hands and brought what she had spun—blue, purple or scarlet yarn or fine linen.  And all the women who were willing and had the skill spun the goat hair . . . All the Israelite men and women who were willing brought to the Lord freewill offerings for all the work the Lord through Moses had commanded them to do."

Jewish women are depicted here as voluntary and willing participants in the worship of the Lord through skilled crafts. 


(40) 6.18: The males among Aaron's offspring are allowed to eat food offerings including (29) the sin offering. 

8.30: "Then Moses took some of the anointing oil and some of the blood from the altar and sprinkled them on Aaron and his garments and on his sons and their garments. So he consecrated Aaron and his garments and his sons and their garments."

Priestly roles, then, are reserved to the male line beginning with Aaron's sons. 

(41) 10.14: "But you and your sons and your daughters may eat the breast that was waved and the thigh that was presented. Eat them in a ceremonially clean place; they have been given to you and your children as your share of the Israelites’ fellowship offerings."

Ceremonial Cleanliness, Female and Male

12.1-6: "The Lord said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites: ‘A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period.  On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised.  Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding. She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over.  If she gives birth to a daughter, for two weeks the woman will be unclean, as during her period. Then she must wait sixty-six days to be purified from her bleeding.  “‘When the days of her purification for a son or daughter are over, she is to bring to the priest at the entrance to the tent of meeting a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering."

15.16-29: ‘When a man has an emission of semen, he must bathe his whole body with water, and he will be unclean till evening.  Any clothing or leather that has semen on it must be washed with water, and it will be unclean till evening.   When a man has sexual relations with a woman and there is an emission of semen, both of them must bathe with water, and they will be unclean till evening.  “‘When a woman has her regular flow of blood, the impurity of her monthly period will last seven days, and anyone who touches her will be unclean till evening. “‘Anything she lies on during her period will be unclean, and anything she sits on will be unclean.   Anyone who touches her bed will be unclean; they must wash their clothes and bathe with water, and they will be unclean till evening.  Anyone who touches anything she sits on will be unclean; they must wash their clothes and bathe with water, and they will be unclean till evening.  Whether it is the bed or anything she was sitting on, when anyone touches it, they will be unclean till evening.  “‘If a man has sexual relations with her and her monthly flow touches him, he will be unclean for seven days; any bed he lies on will be unclean. “‘When a woman has a discharge of blood for many days at a time other than her monthly period or has a discharge that continues beyond her period, she will be unclean as long as she has the discharge, just as in the days of her period.  Any bed she lies on while her discharge continues will be unclean, as is her bed during her monthly period, and anything she sits on will be unclean, as during her period.   Anyone who touches them will be unclean; they must wash their clothes and bathe with water, and they will be unclean till evening.  “‘When she is cleansed from her discharge, she must count off seven days, and after that she will be ceremonially clean.   On the eighth day she must take two doves or two young pigeons and bring them to the priest at the entrance to the tent of meeting.   The priest is to sacrifice one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering. In this way he will make atonement for her before the Lord for the uncleanness of her discharge."

Sexual Sins

18.6-20: “‘No one is to approach any close relative to have sexual relations. I am the Lord.
“‘Do not dishonor your father by having sexual relations with your mother. She is your mother; do not have relations with her.
 “‘Do not have sexual relations with your father’s wife; that would dishonor your father.
 “‘Do not have sexual relations with your sister, either your father’s daughter or your mother’s daughter, whether she was born in the same home or elsewhere.
 “‘Do not have sexual relations with your son’s daughter or your daughter’s daughter; that would dishonor you.
“‘Do not have sexual relations with the daughter of your father’s wife, born to your father; she is your sister.
 “‘Do not have sexual relations with your father’s sister; she is your father’s close relative.
“‘Do not have sexual relations with your mother’s sister, because she is your mother’s close relative.
“‘Do not dishonor your father’s brother by approaching his wife to have sexual relations; she is your aunt.
“‘Do not have sexual relations with your daughter-in-law. She is your son’s wife; do not have relations with her.
 “‘Do not have sexual relations with your brother’s wife; that would dishonor your brother.
“‘Do not have sexual relations with both a woman and her daughter. Do not have sexual relations with either her son’s daughter or her daughter’s daughter; they are her close relatives. That is wickedness.
“‘Do not take your wife’s sister as a rival wife and have sexual relations with her while your wife is living.
“‘Do not approach a woman to have sexual relations during the uncleanness of her monthly period.
“‘Do not have sexual relations with your neighbor’s wife and defile yourself with her."

In the age of Peter Singer, unfortunately some people feel that laws against incest and (following) beastiality need to be defended.  I don't.

Note the command not to marry both sisters and make them rivals to one another.   Recall that is what happened to Jacob's wives.  This reminds one of the command not to cook an animal in its mother's milk: the Jewish people are being commanded to avoid refined cruelty, it seems to me, that upends natural relationships. 

Sleeping With Slaves

19. 20-22: “‘If a man sleeps with a female slave who is promised to another man but who has not been ransomed or given her freedom, there must be due punishment. Yet they are not to be put to death, because she had not been freed.   The man, however, must bring a ram to the entrance to the tent of meeting for a guilt offering to the Lord.   With the ram of the guilt offering the priest is to make atonement for him before the Lord for the sin he has committed, and his sin will be forgiven."

It is not clear to me whether this involved an affair, rape, or coerced relationship somewhere between the two.  More likely the point is that it may be hard to distinguish between the two, so don't assume the worst. 

The assumption, though, is that men don't have absolute control over their female slaves, a step ahead of Mohammed already, 2000 years before him. 

(45) Don't Make Prostitutes

19.29: “‘Do not degrade your daughter by making her a prostitute, or the land will turn to prostitution and be filled with wickedness."

Sadly, some peoples still need to learn this even in modern times. 

More Sexual Laws

20.1-21: "The Lord said to Moses,  “Say to the Israelites: ‘Any Israelite or any foreigner residing in Israel who sacrifices any of his children to Molek is to be put to death . . . “‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death. Because they have cursed their father or mother, their blood will be on their own head.   “‘If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife—with the wife of his neighbor—both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death.  “‘If a man has sexual relations with his father’s wife, he has dishonored his father. Both the man and the woman are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.  “‘If a man has sexual relations with his daughter-in-law, both of them are to be put to death. What they have done is a perversion; their blood will be on their own heads.  “‘If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.  “‘If a man marries both a woman and her mother, it is wicked. Both he and they must be burned in the fire, so that no wickedness will be among you.

 “‘If a man has sexual relations with an animal, he is to be put to death, and you must kill the animal.  “‘If a woman approaches an animal to have sexual relations with it, kill both the woman and the animal. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.   “‘If a man marries his sister, the daughter of either his father or his mother, and they have sexual relations, it is a disgrace. They are to be publicly removed from their people. He has dishonored his sister and will be held responsible.   “‘If a man has sexual relations with a woman during her monthly period, he has exposed the source of her flow, and she has also uncovered it. Both of them are to be cut off from their people.   “‘Do not have sexual relations with the sister of either your mother or your father, for that would dishonor a close relative; both of you would be held responsible. 

“‘If a man has sexual relations with his aunt, he has dishonored his uncle. They will be held responsible; they will die childless.   “‘If a man marries his brother’s wife, it is an act of impurity; he has dishonored his brother.  They will be childless."

Let me focus on the first pair of commandments, here.  Both sacrificing your children and cursing your parents are considered crimes which merit the death penalty.  Nowadays the first crime is considered to merit government subsidy.  Who are the barbarians

Anyway, this all seems fairly gender-neutral.  If one supposes (as many modern feminists do) that women are more sinned against than sinning in sexual relations, less likely to be predators in the crude sense, then strict laws such as these will tend to benefit women more than men.   Anyway, certain horrible places in Thailand would be shut down, thank God.  


(47)  Proving Adultery

11-31:  "The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him so that another man has sexual relations with her, and this is hidden from her husband and her impurity is undetected (since there is no witness against her and she has not been caught in the act), and if feelings of jealousy come over her husband and he suspects his wife and she is impure—or if he is jealous and suspects her even though she is not impure— then he is to take his wife to the priest.  He must also take an offering of a tenth of an ephah of barley flour on her behalf.  He must not pour olive oil on it or put incense on it, because it is a grain offering for jealousy, a reminder-offering to draw attention to wrongdoing.

 “‘The priest shall bring her and have her stand before the Lord.  Then he shall take some holy water in a clay jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water.   After the priest has had the woman stand before the Lord, he shall loosen her hair and place in her hands the reminder-offering, the grain offering for jealousy, while he himself holds the bitter water that brings a curse.   Then the priest shall put the woman under oath and say to her, “If no other man has had sexual relations with you and you have not gone astray and become impure while married to your husband, may this bitter water that brings a curse not harm you.  But if you have gone astray while married to your husband and you have made yourself impure by having sexual relations with a man other than your husband”— here the priest is to put the woman under this curse—“may the Lord cause you to become a curse among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell.  May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells or your womb miscarries.” “‘Then the woman is to say, “Amen. So be it.

 “‘The priest is to write these curses on a scroll and then wash them off into the bitter water.   He shall make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and this water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering will enter her.  The priest is to take from her hands the grain offering for jealousy, wave it before the Lord and bring it to the altar.  The priest is then to take a handful of the grain offering as a memorial offering and burn it on the altar; after that, he is to have the woman drink the water.   If she has made herself impure and been unfaithful to her husband, this will be the result: When she is made to drink the water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering, it will enter her, her abdomen will swell and her womb will miscarry, and she will become a curse. If, however, the woman has not made herself impure, but is clean, she will be cleared of guilt and will be able to have children.  “‘This, then, is the law of jealousy when a woman goes astray and makes herself impure while married to her husband, or when feelings of jealousy come over a man because he suspects his wife.  The priest is to have her stand before the Lord and is to apply this entire law to her.  The husband will be innocent of any wrongdoing, but the woman will bear the consequences of her sin.’”

In the course of nature, a little dust in water should not cause miscarriage.  Maybe a little diarrhea.  The priest is, in effect, depending on divine judgment of sin. 

What about the woman who suspects her husband of adultery?   Seems a little unfair!  But it does seem that the wife is held to a higher standard -- as is probably usually the case.  

(48) 6.1: "The Lord said to Moses,  “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man or woman wants to make a special vow, a vow of dedication to the Lord as a Nazirite . . . "

Women are given equal rights to pursue a religious vocation or calling of a particular sort. 

(49) 12. 1-2: "Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite.  “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?” they asked. “Hasn’t he also spoken through us?” And the Lord heard this."

God is displeased with Moses' brother and sister for their jealousy.  It is true that God had spoken through both Miriam and Aaron.  After their close relationship, rivalry at the top is a pretty realistic phenomena.  Power corrupts.

(50) 14. 3: "Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?

Notice that again, ancient society is assumed to be cruelest to men, in some ways, not to women. 

(51)  Inheritance for Women

27. 1-8: "The daughters of Zelophehad son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Makir, the son of Manasseh, belonged to the clans of Manasseh son of Joseph. The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah and Tirzah.  They came forward and stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders and the whole assembly at the entrance to the tent of meeting and said, 3“Our father died in the wilderness. He was not among Korah’s followers, who banded together against the Lord, but he died for his own sin and left no sons.  Why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had no son? Give us property among our father’s relatives.”   So Moses brought their case before the Lord,  and the Lord said to him, “What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right. You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father’s relatives and give their father’s inheritance to them.  “Say to the Israelites, ‘If a man dies and leaves no son, give his inheritance to his daughter."

This passage may seem to be about women's equality, and may be faulted for not making that equality complete.  But that is probably anachronistic, projecting our individualism on the past.  In the minds of the daughters of Zelophehad, it seems to be more about keeping a family's goods together, about providing for families.  However you read that, the women are assertive in defending their family rights, and God not only rewards their assertiveness, but extends the principle into a general law. 

(52)   Women With Freedom

30.3-16: "When a young woman still living in her father’s household makes a vow to the Lord or obligates herself by a pledge  and her father hears about her vow or pledge but says nothing to her, then all her vows and every pledge by which she obligated herself will stand. But if her father forbids her when he hears about it, none of her vows or the pledges by which she obligated herself will stand; the Lord will release her because her father has forbidden her. “If she marries after she makes a vow or after her lips utter a rash promise by which she obligates herself and her husband hears about it but says nothing to her, then her vows or the pledges by which she obligated herself will stand.  But if her husband forbids her when he hears about it, he nullifies the vow that obligates her or the rash promise by which she obligates herself, and the Lord will release her.  “Any vow or obligation taken by a widow or divorced woman will be binding on her.  “If a woman living with her husband makes a vow or obligates herself by a pledge under oath and her husband hears about it but says nothing to her and does not forbid her, then all her vows or the pledges by which she obligated herself will stand.   But if her husband nullifies them when he hears about them, then none of the vows or pledges that came from her lips will stand.  Her husband has nullified them, and the Lord will release her.   Her husband may confirm or nullify any vow she makes or any sworn pledge to deny herself.   But if her husband says nothing to her about it from day to day, then he confirms all her vows or the pledges binding on her. He confirms them by saying nothing to her when he hears about them.   If, however, he nullifies them some time after he hears about them, then he must bear the consequences of her wrongdoing.”   These are the regulations the Lord gave Moses concerning relationships between a man and his wife, and between a father and his young daughter still living at home."

So women are assumed to be capable of taking the religious initiative.  But fathers and husbands are given veto power for those initiatives.   No doubt this is "sexist."   But it may also provide a useful "out" for foolish promises, and one wonders mainly why sons aren't given the same chance. 

Save the Virgins

31.15-18: “Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them.   “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the Lord in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the Lord’s people.  Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man,  but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man."

Here we come to one of the more horrible passages in the Old Testament.   It is not enough that Israel kills every man of weapon-bearing age and above among the Midianites.   Now they are to kill all the boys and all the women, saving only virgins (little girls) for their own sexual appetites, present or future.  And God puts his stamp on this.  Later in the chapter the booty is counted and revealed to include 32,000 young women who are still virgins.

As a description of cruel ancient warfare, this is not so very shocking or unusual, though a little extreme even among Greek historical narratives. 

Is there any way to soften the blow for Christians? 

Well, of course this is not a Christian text, but a pre-Christian text.  Nothing here is normative for Christians, or even for Jews most of the time. 

And skeptics cannot have their cake and eat it.  If their skeptical comments about the Old Testament as a whole are accurate, then no such incident ever took place.   Nor need all Christians assume that this incident actually occurred.   

(54)  Female Inheritance, Again

36.6-12: "This is what the Lord commands for Zelophehad’s daughters: They may marry anyone they please as long as they marry within their father’s tribal clan.   No inheritance in Israel is to pass from one tribe to another, for every Israelite shall keep the tribal inheritance of their ancestors.   Every daughter who inherits land in any Israelite tribe must marry someone in her father’s tribal clan, so that every Israelite will possess the inheritance of their ancestors.  No inheritance may pass from one tribe to another, for each Israelite tribe is to keep the land it inherits.”  So Zelophehad’s daughters did as the Lord commanded Moses.  Zelophehad’s daughters—Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milkah and Noah—married their cousins on their father’s side.   They married within the clans of the descendants of Manasseh son of Joseph, and their inheritance remained in their father’s tribe and clan."


Ten Commandments Repeated

5. 16, 18, 21: "Honor your father and your mother . . . You shall not commit adultery . . .  “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. You shall not set your desire on your neighbor’s house or land, his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

Some exegetes like to read this passage as an affirmation of the feminist conceit that women "belong to men" in the Bible.  I think the vast majority of passages we have already covered (1-54) resoundingly disprove that interpretation. 

(56) 10.18: "(God) secures justice for the orphan and the widow."

(57)  Everybody Party!

16.11, on the Passover Feast: "And rejoice before the Lord your God at the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name—you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, the Levites in your towns, and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows living among you."

The Jewish people are commanded to PARTY without paying heed to gender, class, or ethnic boundaries!  Everyone should join in!   

(58) 17.17: "(The king) must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray."

Such restraint would also have been good for the women, and for their potential mates.

(59)  Marrying Slaves and Extra Wives

21. 11-17: "If you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife.  Bring her into your home and have her shave her head, trim her nails and put aside the clothes she was wearing when captured.  After she has lived in your house and mourned her father and mother for a full month, then you may go to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife.   If you are not pleased with her, let her go wherever she wishes.  You must not sell her or treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her.  If a man has two wives, and he loves one but not the other, and both bear him sons but the firstborn is the son of the wife he does not love,  when he wills his property to his sons, he must not give the rights of the firstborn to the son of the wife he loves in preference to his actual firstborn, the son of the wife he does not love.   He must acknowledge the son of his unloved wife as the firstborn by giving him a double share of all he has. That son is the first sign of his father’s strength. The right of the firstborn belongs to him."

These laws seem, among other things, to legislate fairness to women in certain vulnerable and subordinate positions.  Mohammed disobeyed the law requiring that a captive woman be allowed to mourn her lost loved ones a decent interval.

(60) 22.5: "A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the Lord your God detests anyone who does this."

(61) More Laws

22.13-30: "If a man takes a wife and, after sleeping with her, dislikes her  and slanders her and gives her a bad name, saying, “I married this woman, but when I approached her, I did not find proof of her virginity,”  then the young woman’s father and mother shall bring to the town elders at the gate proof that she was a virgin.   Her father will say to the elders, “I gave my daughter in marriage to this man, but he dislikes her.   Now he has slandered her and said, ‘I did not find your daughter to be a virgin.’ But here is the proof of my daughter’s virginity.” Then her parents shall display the cloth before the elders of the town, and the elders shall take the man and punish him.   They shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give them to the young woman’s father, because this man has given an Israelite virgin a bad name.  She shall continue to be his wife; he must not divorce her as long as he lives.   If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the young woman’s virginity can be found,  she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death.  She has done an outrageous thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house. You must purge the evil from among you.   If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die. You must purge the evil from Israel.   If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her,  you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death—the young woman because she was in a town and did not scream for help, and the man because he violated another man’s wife. You must purge the evil from among you.  But if out in the country a man happens to meet a young woman pledged to be married and rapes her, only the man who has done this shall die.  Do nothing to the woman; she has committed no sin deserving death. This case is like that of someone who attacks and murders a neighbor,  for the man found the young woman out in the country, and though the betrothed woman screamed, there was no one to rescue her.  If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.  A man is not to marry his father’s wife; he must not dishonor his father’s bed."

From a modern perspective, this seems a mixed bag at best.   The penalty for adultery was death for both men and women, but again the harsher end of the law seems directed at women.  And the forensics seems a little crude. 

(62)  Divorce and Marriage and War

24.1-5: "If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house,  and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the Lord. Do not bring sin upon the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.  If a man has recently married, he must not be sent to war or have any other duty laid on him. For one year he is to be free to stay at home and bring happiness to the wife he has married."

This latter seems a wonderful law, which would be worth adopting.  Let the young couple have some fun before he is called up.

(63) 24.17: "Do not . . . take a widow's dress in pledge." 

(64)  Keeping the Family Going

25: 5-12: "If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her.   The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel.  However, if a man does not want to marry his brother’s wife, she shall go to the elders at the town gate and say, “My husband’s brother refuses to carry on his brother’s name in Israel. He will not fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to me.”  Then the elders of his town shall summon him and talk to him. If he persists in saying, “I do not want to marry her,”  his brother’s widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, take off one of his sandals, spit in his face and say, “This is what is done to the man who will not build up his brother’s family line.”   That man’s line shall be known in Israel as The Family of the Unsandaled.  If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts,  you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity."

All these laws reflect the need to keep families going.  The woman is threatening the man's hope of having offspring.  Thus she is punished, as is the man who even accidentally inducing a miscarriage, due to incidental violence. 

(65) Curses

27.16-23: "Cursed is anyone who dishonors their father or mother.”  Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”

 “Cursed is anyone who moves their neighbor’s boundary stone.”  Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”
“Cursed is anyone who leads the blind astray on the road.”  Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”
“Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.”  Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”
“Cursed is anyone who sleeps with his father’s wife, for he dishonors his father’s bed.”  Then all the people shall say, “Amen!” . . .
“Cursed is anyone who sleeps with his sister, the daughter of his father or the daughter of his mother.”  Then all the people shall say, “Amen!” “Cursed is anyone who sleeps with his mother-in-law.”  Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”