Friday, June 02, 2017

Annie Gaylor's lies about women in the Bible, revisited

Lately I have found myself telling certain skeptics that "You don't give a damn about truth." 

I am not trying to insult the people I say this too.  These words are intended as a slap across the face, to awaken those who treat facts like doormats upon which to wipe their muddy boots, to the shame of not valuing truth for the treasure that it is.  It is a shame to sell our souls to gain nothing more than a point in an argument.   

Image result for annie gaylor
And from reality. 
I generally try not to accuse people I disagree with of telling "lies."  But several years ago, in a review here of Annie Gaylor, "Woman, What Have I to do with Thee?" from a John Loftus book, I found I could hardly avoid the word:

"I am disgusted by this chapter.  I am disgusted that John Loftus claims he despises Christianity because it demeans women, but then when I offer him profuse evidence that in fact the Gospel has helped billions of women around the world, John claims he has no time to read and think about contrary evidence.  (Before repeating his slurs in public, with as big a megaphone as he can acquire, again and again, and trying to persuade others of them.)  I am disgusted at Annie Gaylor's lies.  (Such as that there are no significant women in the Bible who are not portrayed as demonic -- did I mention Jesus' mother yet?  Mary Magdalene?  The women who support his ministry?  The lady he meets by a well in Samaria with a checkered past, who gains new life and evangelizes her village?  Priscella, Paul's esteemed colleague in ministry, or the many other female coworkers he mentions by name in his letters?)  I am disgusted at the way Gaylor turns nobility into ugliness, and takes what is beautiful and wholesome, and tries to portray it as something shameful and evil, even if the only way she can do so is take a few verses badly out of context, and ignore the rest.  I am disgusted that she, with her degree from the University of Wisconsin School of Journalism, has never apparently felt the need to learn more history before condemning a book that has liberated billions of her fellow women.  I am disgusted that John felt the need to include a chapter filled with such over-the-top, and easily falsifiable, claims about the Bible, in his shiny new anthology.  It devalues the surrounding real estate, just as a contentious woman renders even a nice house near uninhabitable, and gold is unfitting in a pig's snout."

Here are a few of the sentences which I found so obnoxiously dishonest and "easily falsifiable:"   

“As I read the Bible with increasing incredulity, I realized how little women could be valued in a society whose most valued book utterly devalues women.  It is impossible for women to be free and equal in a culture that refers to a violent and demeaning handbook for women’s subjugation as ‘the good book.’ Among the most common of the biblical epithets for women are ‘harlot,’ ‘whore,’ ‘unclean.’ Biblical women play one of two roles: they are either superfluous . . . or diabolical.”

Clearly, all this is patent nonsense.  The Bible does not "utterly devalue (or demean) women."  It is not a "handbook for women's subjugation." (Indeed, it is not a handbook at all -- it is an anthology which often places women in a very positive light.)

So far as I know, women in general are never described as "harlot" or "whore" in the Bible, only those women who happen to work those particular professions, which did exist at the time!  And some of the prostitutes in the Bible turn out to be heroines!  I bet the percentage of heroic prostitutes in the Bible is higher than the percentage of heroic kings. 

It is obviously patent nonsense to claim that every woman in the Bible is either "diabolical" or "superfluous."  I listed many obvious counter-examples in that initial response.  (Indeed, I don't know of any woman in the Bible who is described as diabolical -- even the Witch of Endor complains about Saul's dishonesty, and then feeds him before he goes!) 

But even dishonest challenges can prove of value.  Given lemons, the season for lemonade is dawning.  Sweeping claims about the Bible should throw us back on primary literature.  What does the Bible say about women, really?   We should all be like the noble Bereans who "examined the Scriptures (or other relevant bodies of data) to see if these things were so."

So prodded by Gaylor's lies, and the continuing obtuseness of many who claim to speak on behalf of women everywhere, I have now gone through the entire Old Testament, and studied every single story or piece of legislation I could find that have to do with women.  Because that is another of the weaknesses of the New Atheism: it cherry-picks.  It is time to systematically harvest the entire orchard of facts.

Which will help us not only refute incautious generalizations, but to offer valid generalizations about women and the Bible for ourselves. 

I will begin to do that in this post. 

I made a list of 93 women or groups of women named or described in the Old Testament, noting in addition some 21 women who are named merely as the mother of a king, for a total of 114.  Here are the 93, in order of appearance:

Genesis:  Eve, Sarah, Lot's two wives, Hagar, Rebekah, Judith, Basemath, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, Zilpah, Dinah, Tamar, Potiphar's wife, Joseph's wife (16). 

Exodus-Deuteronomy: the midwives of Israel, Mother of Moses (or "MOM" for short! love to say that!), Pharoah's daughter, Sister of Moses, Miriam (maybe the same person?), daughters of the priest of Midian, Zipporah, daughters of Zelophehad (Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milkah, Noah) (12)

Histories of the Jewish Tribes: Rahab, Aksah, Deborah, Jael, Sisera's mother, woman with the millstone and deadly aim, daughter of Zephthah, Mother of Samson, Samson's first wife, prostitute he sleeps with, Delilah, the Levite's concubine, his host's virgin daughter, the women of Jabesh Gilead, Ruth, Naomi, Orpah.  (17)

Histories of the Hebrew Kingdom: Hannah, Penninah, wife of Phinehas, Merah, Michael, Abigail, the Witch of Endor, Rizpah, Bathsheba, Tamar, wise woman of Abel (who saves the town), Abishag, Pharaoh's daughter, Prostitute A, Prostitute B (and the sword of Solomon), Queen of Sheba, Solomon's foreign wives, Jeroboam's wife, Maakah, Jezebel, widow of Zarephath (whom Elijah meets), the widow whom Elisha furnishes with oil, a Shunammite woman, two women caught in a siege who commit cannibalism, Ahaziah, Jehosheba (sisters, one of whom tries to kill, the other to protect, Joash), Naaman's wife, her Jewish servant girl, Huldah.  (30)

+ 21 mothers of kings.  (Not all mothers are named.  Most of those named are mothers of good kings.   But some mothers of good kings are not named, including David's Mom, while some mothers of evil kings are named.) 

Esther: Queen Vashti, Esther, and Zeresh (Haman's wife).  (3)

Wisdom Literature: Job's wife, Jemimah, Keziah, Keren-Happuch, the personification of Wisdom, the personification of Adultery, the Wife of Noble Character. (7)

Song of Solomon: the Bride, her maids.  (2)

Prophetic works: the women who worship the Queen of Heaven in Jeremiah, false female prophets, Gomer, "cow of Beshan" (country club women who despise the poor and ask their husbands for more drinks), divorced women who are victimized by their husbands.  (5)

For Gaylor's claim to be true, each and every one of these 114 women will have to be presented as either "superfluous," whatever that means, or "diabolical." 

My first empirically-valid point is just how spectacularly wrong Gaylor is.  So let us begin by sorting the 114 women or groups of women in the Old Testament into the following five categories: (a) superfluous; (b) diabolical; (c) villainesses; (d) heroines; (e) women of unknown character. 

(a) "Superfluous" Women in the Old Testament 


It is true that a few Old Testament ladies are treated as superfluous by the men, or women, in their lives.  Even Abraham tries to ditch Sarah to save his own skin when he notices a powerful king has his eye upon her.  (Twice!)  But God protects her from sexual abuse, so clearly God thought more highly of her value than her own husband!

Other women are less fortunate.  There is the Levite's concubine in Judges, for instance, whom Richard Dawkins highlights in his critique of the "misogynistic" and "weird" God of the Old Testament.  She and the daughter of the Levite's "kindly" host are offered to a crowd of rapists in lieu of the sorry body of the Levite himself, in a kinky small town of the tribe of Benjamin.  (Crowds of gang-rapists still seem endemic to that part of the world.)  The concubine is gang-raped all night long, a fate which the daughter seems to escape, little thanks to Dad, and is found dead the next morning.  Her cold (at best) or sociopathic (more likely) lover then cuts her up and UPSs the pieces to the twelve tribes of Israel.  News of this horror sets off a war which leaves the tribe of Benjamin almost decimated. 

So in the end, from the author's point of view, or that of God, was the concubine superfluous?  Well, no, the Levite seemed to value her enough at least to lose his mind after she died.  And her murder led to great and fell and extremely "weird," as Dawkins says accurately in this case, events. 

But the narrator's point seems to be that "there was no king, and every man did what was right in his own mind."  The author gives no hint that it is OK to dispose of one's women in this manner, indeed the point of the story seems just the opposite. 

So I would say, from the point of view of the Bible, or its authors, no woman named in its pages is "superfluous."  (Though what about those thousands of unnamed troops who died in the ensuing battle?)  And many are absolutely vital, if you read their stories. 

So are they all "diabolical, then?"

(b) Diabolical Women in the Old Testament. 

Image result for jezebel
Women in the Bible?
Also zero. 

If "diabolical" means "of, relating to, or characteristic of the devil," I'm not sure any woman in the entire Bible qualifies.  Women murder, commit acts of cannibalism, worship idols, betray their family members, eat fruit they're not supposed to, sleep with the wrong people, and steal.  But these are all human sins, and they are never ascribed to demon possession or something fundamental about female character.  Some of the women who commit such sins, like the men who commit similar sins, also do good acts, or are praised or rewarded by God.

The worse two women in the Old Testament are probably (1) Jezebel, who murders the prophets of God, leads the nation into worshipping Baal, kills a neighbor so her husband can plant grapes, and teaches her cruel leadership style to her daughters, and (2) Ahaziah, who murders her own grandchildren to retain power.  But dozens of men commit terrible crimes throughout the Old Testament as well.  Some try to murder the entire Jewish race -- and are stopped, in part, by women! 

Let us grant, then, that Ms. Gaylor engaged in a "little" hyperbole.  But surely her point is simply that women are depicted in generally unflattering, contemptuous, "demeaning" manner?  And therefore the Bible has nothing to offer to young women looking for role models, or men seeking to gain and understanding of the other sex?  And maybe that criticism of the Old Testament, stated more reasonably, would be valid? 

So let's look at our next category, villainesses.

(c) Biblical She-Villains.

I find 24 women or groups of women who act, to some degree or extent, as villainesses in the Old Testament:

Eve, Lot's wife and two daughters; Bilhah, Zilpah, Potiphor's wife, Samson's first wife, Delilah, Peninnah, Michal (in one case), the witch of Endor,  Rizpah, Bathsheba (in one case), Prostitute A in the story of Solomon and the baby, Solomon's foreign wives, Maakah, Jezebel, Ahaziah, Zeresh, Job's wife (a little), the Adulterous Woman, women who worship the Queen of Heaven, false female prophets, Gomer, the "cows of Bashan." 

So only a little more than one in five women in the Old Testament are, in fact, ever portrayed as villainesses.  And some of those figures are also portrayed as doing good, or being blessed by God:  Eve, the Mother of Mankind, Bathsheba, the mother of Solomon, and Michael, who in another instance saves David from her own maddened father.  Lot's daughters are portrayed as victimized as much as villainesses: offered by their own father to rapists (who refused, fortunately), they then faithfully followed that cad of a father out of Sodom, while their fiancés lacked so much faith, and stayed behind. 

Job's wife famously advises her husband to "Curse God and die," not a nice thing to say, but not hard to understand, considering that all her children had just died in tragic and clearly God-sanctioned disasters.  Still, that's the only bad thing she says in the book, and later she appears to be blessed with an even larger family -- or at least Job is.  No mention is made of her death or divorce. 

So all in all, unambiguous villainesses are not that common in the Old Testament. 

Maybe what Gaylor really meant (third line of retreat) is that while there are villainous and weak women in the Bible, there are few if any strong, intelligent, creative women in the Bible who show initiative and leadership qualities?  Read the Bible, young women, and all you will find are models of subjugation and contempt!

But first, you have to ignore all the heroines. 

(d) Heroines in the Old Testament 

The Old Testament is, in fact, filled with clever, wise, and heroic women.  I find 37, at least half again as many as femme fatales, vixens, and bejeweled sociopaths combined.  

Nor are these heroic female figures insignificant.  

* Sarah, mother of the Jewish nation, who playfully named her son after her own skeptical laughter.

* Rebekah, who took the initiative to kindly host a visitor from afar, watered his camels and found a place for him to stay, then when asked her choice, boldly volunteered to go and meet her future husband.

* The Jewish midwives, who risked their own lives to save Israel's sons from the Pharaoh's genocidal butcher knives.

* Pharaoh's daughter, who compassionately rescued and raised a Hebrew boy named Moses.

* Moses' sister, who watched her little brother, then cleverly volunteered her own mother as the boy's nurse-maid.  (No doubt negotiating good terms!)

* Miriam, Moses' sister, is later described as one of the leaders of Israel's liberation, along with her two brothers, whether or not that is the same sister.

* Zipporah, one of the Midianite girls whom Moses protected, later saved her husband from getting killed and established the custom which help define the Jewish people to this day. 

*  The five daughters of Zelophehad launched a political campaign to inherit their father's property, resulting in a new law protecting other women (and families) in their position.

Image result for deborah bible
Another pretty wall-flower?
* Deborah, a judge and military leader who rules Israel, is one of the few such judges who is not recording as slipping up in any major way.  (She even is the subject of a song of praise, which she shares with a more minor heroine.)

* Ruth, whose story earns a whole book in the Bible.  (Maybe Gaylor's dog ate that book?)  Ruth was a foreign woman who married into a Jewish family, then developed such a close friendship with her wise mother-in-law that she immigrated to Israel to be with her.  She wound up marrying a local businessman (the story satisfied both requirements of good chick-flick) and giving birth to the line that leads to King David, Israel's greatest king.

* Michal saved her husband David from Saul's murderous wrath by sneaking him out the window. 

* Abigail coverd for her crude and ungrateful husband by diplomatically offering provisions for David and his army, thus saving her family from probable massacre.   After her husband died drunk, she accepted David's offer of marriage -- also, of course, a wise move for the family. 

* The prostitute (yes, the institution did exist!) who offered her own son to her rival to save his life.  (Solomon then recognized that she was the real mother.) 

* Two women are described as prophets. 

* The Queen of Sheba, rich, bold, and intellectually curious, traveled weeks to participate in a science seminar with King Solomon as her personal tutor.   

* A Shunammite woman set up a room for the prophet of God when he visited, then trusted him to save her child, more than her husband. 

* Jehosheba saved her nephew Joash from his murderous grandmother -- for the good of the nation, since Joash proved a generally decent king.

* The little maid of the wife of the Syrian general Naaman took the initiative to inform her master of how he could be healed of leprosy. 

* Esther, whose story also merited an entire book of the Bible (that dog must have a sore stomach!), was a queen of Persia who, at risk to her own life, saved the Jewish people from genocide, under the prodding and tutelage of her uncle.  (Thus founding a holiday, and lending precedent to many later Jewish heroes who needed to do the same.) 

* The Proverbs personified Wisdom as a lady. 

* Proverbs also ends by sketching a portrait of a good woman whom a man should seek as spouse: a  creative and hard-working entrepreneur, not a mere sex object, who takes the initiative to teach and engages in philanthropy. 

There is far more to the story than these brief sketches can describe, of course.  What a wealth of role models for both women and men! 

(e) Women of unknown character. 

As with most men in the Old Testament, some women are merely named, without enough details given to fix them as good or bad.  (This is more true of men, because genealogies and descriptions of the officer corps in armies include numerous names of men of whom we are told little or nothing.)  Many of the women are merely described as the mothers of various kings.  Some of those mothers, like Bathsheba and Jezebel, do reveal their characters through action.  But most are merely names.  As I mentioned, it is significant, however, that mothers of good kings are named more often than mothers of evil kings.


And so one has to ask, "What book has Annie Gaylor been reading?"  Her claim is not only false, it is ludicrous.   In fact, far more women in the Old Testament are depicted in a heroic light, than as villains.  (I doubt you could say that of the men!)  There are, of course, bad women, and women who are merely victims of fate or unjust societies.  But one also finds dozens of heroic women who speak for God, lead nations, defeat enemies, save kings from certain death, protect the next generation, and exemplify courage, hard work, creativity, scientific curiosity, humor, diplomacy, intelligence, friendship and love. 

And of course, bad examples are also examples, and true to life, since women are as much sinners as men. 

Nothing could be more absurd or at odds with the evidence than Gaylor's ridiculous claims.  One is inclined to wonder what she has really read, or perhaps what she has smoked.  But her false claims were useful to me, because they drove me to read systematically what the Old Testament says about women.

And compared to other ancient Scriptures, like the Law of Manu or even the Analects of Confucius, what the Old Testament says is often highly ennobling.  (Though of course not all relevant passages that we have covered these past many posts are stories, and many of the strangest and hardest to understand are therefore not included here.)   

Jesus was revolutionary and absolutely necessary.  But in light of the redemptive history that the Bible tells as a whole, he did not contradict, but crystalized and strengthened what was already largely implicit, while challenging some apparent implications of those more troubling passages. 



TheMediocreCommission said...

Good grief, you're absolutely right David, "What book has Annie Gaylor been reading?". I'm glad that you're out there reading, writing and blogging. And yes, tell people they are "telling lies", if that's what they are doing.

BTW - I'm halfway through "Jesus is No Myth". Great book

David B Marshall said...

Thanks! Glad you found it interesting. Thoughtful reviews on Amazon are welcome . . .

TheMediocreCommission said...

Where would you place Jael in your list? She gets a couple of verses in "The Song of Deborah" (Judges 5:24-27), and is considered a heroine. But, I dunno, it was kind of sneaky and cowardly killing Sisera in his sleep like that. It's a fantastic story, though!

David B Marshall said...

Since the question is "How does the Bible portray women," the clear fact that the narrator sees her as a heroine, as you say, puts her in that category. We are talking about a primitive Afghan-like social order, though, and a crude justice. What I find fascinating is this transition from tribal culture to a kingdom, and how the Bible recognizes the weaknesses of both systems, even while Israel manages to import much of the freedom of the former into the latter -- unlike most ME nations.