Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Out of Egypt: the Woman's Perspective

Image result for prince of egypt
The story of Israel begins where Egypt never arrives: with genuine heroes and strong heroines.
What did Jewish women gain by leaving behind perhaps the world's most advanced civilization, and traveling into the wilderness?  

Egypt was one of Israel's neighbors, and the central Jewish story was about how the nation once sojourned in Egypt for four long centuries.  Indeed, according to Genesis and Exodus, it was in Egypt that a small band of brothers grew into a great people, becoming a nation of hundreds of thousands before being enslaved and then escaping.  Moses and the Exodus forms a lastingly and central part of the Hebrew self-understanding to this day, a story of enslavement, liberation and return that has become part of world culture, and influenced reform movements.  

To understand what the Bible has to say about women, it is therefore important to see how women were seen in this neighboring culture from which Israel is said to have sprung.  

In Women in Ancient Egypt, Cambridge and Emory Scholar Gay Robins points out that little trace of personality can be found in many Egyptian records.  Kings and queens are treated stereotypically and ideally as reflections of the divine realm.  Some men memorialized their good deeds  in formulaic obituaries: 

I have come from my town
I have descended from my nome
I have done justice for its lord
I have satisfied him with what he loves . . . 
I rescued the weak from the stronger than he
As much as was in my power.
I gave bread to the hungry, clothes to the naked
I brought the boatless to land.
I buried him who had no son,
I made a boat for him who lacked one.
I respected my father, I pleased my mother,
I raised their children.
So says he whose nickname is Sheshi (Lichtheim, 17).

Commoners are seldom referred to, certainly little interest is taken in them as human beings.   And almost all literature is about men.  

The contrast with the Hebrew Bible in some ways seems stark.  If Robins is right, in almost three thousand years of Egyptian history, while one finds four or five female rulers, a few of whom must have had forceful personalities,  one really finds no genuine heroines to match Ruth, Esther, or even Rebekah.  (In my last post, I listed 37 heroines in the Old Testament alone -- and remember that Egyptian history was much longer!)  

However, while Egyptian women were mostly excluded from the state and many other positions, their position in society was arguably better than in many other civilizations, in some ways perhaps including modern Arab countries.   They could travel, buy, sell, marry, and even divorce, by about 500 BC.  

As a first step to understanding the role of women in Egypt, let us scan Robins' book and note commonalities with and differences from Old Testament society.   In what sense did Jewish women (and men) find liberation by leaving Egypt?  

(14) "The so-called autobiographies of officials are in the main stereotypic.  Their purpose is to confirm that the subject lived his life in accordance with accepted standards.  . . . It is also a significant fact that similar auto-biographies were not written for women.  This lack means that we have no comparable record of accepted standards of behavior for women in society."

"The Egyptians did not develop a tradition of expressing personal opinions or of self-examination in their writing.  Letters do not comment on political or other events. . . . Nothing like a personal notebook or diary has ever been found . . . Thus we seldom encounter individual personality in Egypt because the Egyptians do not seem to have been concerned with perpetuating themselves as they actually were, but only as they conformed to society's ideals. "

This marks an amazing contrast with Old Testament literature.  Consider the strong, forceful, yet also flawed and very human personalities that fill the Hebrew Bible!  Abraham, called of God to leave his home, trusting God to sacrifice his own son -- yet cowardly hiding behind his wife!  David, a "man after God's own heart," a musician and a hero, yet subject to rages, lust, and scheming for which the prophet Nathan rebukes him.  Esther, a beautiful young woman given the chance to save her nation, yet vacillating with fear.  Jeremiah, called to announce doom, weeping and crying out to God over his sacked and despoiled city.  Elijah, cowering in a cave after calling down fire from heaven for fear of a vitriolic queen.  

The monuments of Egypt are made of stone: those of Israel, of flesh and blood.  

(15)  Father-daughter marriages.   "Consummated brother-sister marriage also breaks modern incest taboos, but its presence in the royal family of ancient Egypt has had to be accepted because of the overwhelming evidence for it.  Father-daughter marriage, on the other hand, not only violates our society's definition of incest, but it also cuts across generations and raises the stereotypic image of a lascivious old man forcing himself on an innocent young girl."

Unfortunately, Robins points out, we don't know that the Egyptians saw things that way. 

(17) The elite "usually had no interest in recording information about their inferiors."

"The creation of the universe was begun by the interaction of the male and female principles embodied in pairs of deities."

The Pharaoh thus married his sister because that is what Osiris and Isis did in Egyptian mythology.  

One wonders if these matrimonial arrangements engendered a tendency in the royal bloodline to children with extra fingers, or ears upside down, or stuck together.   The Jewish laws against incest are a practical improvement, here. which couldn't help but improve the gene stock, and degrade the creepiness quotient.  

(18) "If Isis was the ideal wife and mother, the goddess Hathor was the embodiment of female sexuality, love, music and dance, and inebriation.  She was a bringer of fertility and protected women in childbirth."

"Men, too, had to conform, but for them the rules were different.  Since society was male-dominated, the norms were set by men for the benefit of men.  For instance, these insisted on the faithfulness of married women to their male partners, but not the other way around, which was of advantage to men because only then could they be sure that they were the fathers of their wives' offspring.  By contrast, women had no doubt of their motherhood, and therefore had less to gain by the arrangement."

Robins is fair-minded enough (indeed, her book is well-balanced) to recognize a practical utility to the "double standard" which for some reason had not occurred to me.  Men do want to make sure the children they raise are their own.  Women know that the children they give birth to, are their own children, after all!  

But notice that the Old Testament subverts this double standard by (1) describing monogamous marriage as the ideal of creation ("for this reason a man will leave his parents and cling to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh"); (2) by depicting the tragedy that comes from polygamy (Abraham, Jacob and his 12 sons, David, Solomon, etc); (3) by warning kings against too many wives; (4) by occasionally making loose women or even prostitutes seem relatively righteous, to the men around them.   

(19) "Whether women were consciously aware of the many gender distinctions in their society and, further, resented them can never be known, since we have no surviving record expressing their attitudes and opinions."

"In ancient Egypt, conformity not individuality was prized, and both men and women had predetermined roles in a society which looked to the past for its models.  Although Egyptian society was by no means unchanging, change was slow and at any given them the status quo was unlikely to be questioned."

"It is true that four female kings occupied the throne at one time or another, but their position was an anomalous one."

We'll meet a few of those "kings," and significant queens, later. 

One might say that Israel paralleled Egypt in this sense, since the royal line passed exclusively through male kings.  Powerful queens and royal women are also described in the Jewish historical records as ruling or exerting influence, both for good and evil, however.  

(20) "Royal women had access to the ultimate power source in Egypt, the king, and a weak ruler might be controlled by a strong wife or mother.  Further, while the king was by origin human, his office of kingship was divine and thus the status of the royal women in relation to the king also carried elements of divinity, setting them apart from non-royal women."

This brings up a vital question about our larger question, the status of women.  

Can one even speak of the happiness or status of women as if it were somehow divorced (I use the word advisedly) from the success and happiness of the men with whom their lives are linked?  If my wife is given a raise, sorry feminists everywhere, but I will celebrate.  Nothing is more simple-minded than to view the status of the sexes as a zero-sum game, as if my life would be enhanced by having a gloomy, moping, over-weight wife hang around indoors all day, and me being afraid to let her stray outside alone so I have to interrupt my day to attend her on shopping trips for fear she will be hit up by strangers or (at worst) raped or thrown into the slammer by religious police! 

It is always foolish to talk about the sexes atomistically, as if we were all little one-man or one-woman islands.  Commoners in ancient Egypt were mostly invisible.  Kings were worshipped as gods, and even their steps were tied to the past and to mythological stereotypes.   Even if the status of royal women is respectable, if the whole society is composed of slaves, what profit have most individual women?  Or in the Soviet Union, even if a few women are given official leadership roles in a rubber-stamp Soviet, and even if women lived longer than men, if that is just because the men were drinking themselves to death, should we count that as a win for women?  Is a mother supposed to feel better if her son dies in a ditch along the road in winter, and she outlives him?

So one should be careful not to focus to closely on a few privileged women in any society, where the vast majority of both genders lacks freedom.   

(21)  "The office of kingship was essential to the very existence of the state of Egypt.   The king stood between the divine and human worlds, acting as the point of contact and mediator."

"At the time of creation, the creator god produced a pair of offspring who in turn produced a second divine couple and so on, the most famous being Osiris and his sister-consort Isis.  So at the time of creation, choice of partner was perforce limited to brother or sister.  By marrying his sister, the king set himself apart from his subjects who did not normally marry their sisters.  By imitating the gods, he stressed the divine side of kingship."

I hope this incestuous expression of divinity didn't involve bat wings growing out of the spines of the royals.  Though come to think of it, Egyptian deities often do look like "hopeful monsters," as the products of freak mutations are sometimes called in biology.  Maybe this makes some sense.  

(30) Thutmose III (1479-1425 BC) married three women (Menhet, Mertit, and Menway) with names that suggest Syria-Palestinian origins, among others.  When foreign nations who sent brides to Egypt were equal with the pharaoh, they called one another "brother."  Otherwise, a vassal king called him "my lord, my god, my sun-god."

"Send your daughter to the king, your lord, and as presents send twenty healthy slaves, silver chariots, and healthy horses."

"And see, I have send my daughter to the court, to the king, my lord, my god, my sun-god."

This establishes the fact that marriage was going on between the Egyptian royal family and the royal families of nearby kings.  Robins takes for granted that the OT claim that Solomon married one of Pharaoh's daughters is factual: in that later period, Egypt was weaker than before, and would have been willing to give as well as take royal daughters.  

(40) "Queens most frequently appear in scenes in temples or on royal stelae, following the king who performs a ritual action."

"Scenes showing the divine birth of the king are of a different character from other temple scenes.  First, they claim to represent a specific occasion when the king's mother conceived the king through impregnation by the god Amun-Ra.  In fact, their reality lies on a mythological not mundane level.  Second, the queen achieves direct contact with the gods without the mediation of the king, which rarely happens elsewhere."

(42) "However, Egyptian monuments only record the ideal and omit what does not fit the official model, which had no interest in individual personalities. Thus, we can never expect to find evidence of the careers of individual queens and their possible manipulation of power."

How different from the Old Testament, which goes out of its way to tell such stories.  

(42-43) " . . . there is evidence that the king's mother Ahhotep played a crucial role in these stirring events.  Ahmose later set up a great stela at Karnak in which he included a passage praising Ahhotep as 'one who cares for Egypt.  She has looked after her soldiers, she has guarded her; she has brought back her fugitives, and collected together her deserters; she has pacified Upper Egypt, and expelled her rebels.'  Although far less precise than we would like, the passage breaks free of the stereotypic phrases usually applied to queens, suggesting that it is rooted in actual events."

Ahhotep is one of three or so Egyptian women who seems to have attained real and important power, in three millennia of history.  

Amhose's wife Ahmose Nefertari was equally important.  She was entitled "god's wife of Amun," a title she seemed to use in construction projects over "the king's wife."  A stela was set up in temple of Amun in Karnak, giving her important position in this central Egyptian cult. 

(44) "When Ahmose decided to erect a cenotaph at Abydos for the mother of his father and the mother of his mother, Tetisheri, he left a stela recording the decision which describes how he sought the approval of Ahmose Nefetari for his plans.  Such participation for a queen is almost unique in the records, and it may reflect Ahmose Nefetari's interest in the religious building projects of the reign."

'When the god's wife Ahmose Nefetari, justified with the great god, lord of the west, flew to heaven."

(45) "His sister, the god's wife, Hatshepsut, controlled the affairs of the land.'  Since Thutmose III had a reign of nearly fifty-four year's duration, it is likely that he came to the throne as a boy and that Hatshepsut acted as regent for him."

Hatshepsut was it seems the most powerful female ruler in all Egyptian history.  

(46) Hatshepsut liked the title, "god's wife."  Kingly iconography was employed for her -- "god's wife," "mistress of the Two Lands" -- and obelisks were erected at Karnak "an act which took over a kingly prerogative."   Hapshepsut is depicted as offering to the gods directly.  

"At some point in Thurmose's reign, and not later than year 7, Hatshepsut abandoned the titles and insignia of a queen.  From then on, she adopted the five-fold titular of a king, and on the monuments at least, if not in life, she appeared in the male costume of a king."

Hatshepsut is comparable, then, to Wu Zetian, the Tang Dynasty ruler whom Chinese women look up to, to this day, for her uniquely forceful (if often ruthless) rule.   Chinese dynastic history likewise lasted some 3000 years, with genuine forceful control by a female emperor or empress wielded on similarly rare but memorable occasions.  (The other great example was the Empress Dowager in modern Qing China.)  

(48) Then she had to give up the title "god's wife," which she handed on to Neferura, her daughter by Thutmose II.

(50) Unlike other rare female rulers who took over for a few years at the end of a dynasty, Hatshepsut "took power in the middle of a flourishing dynasty and ruled for over ten years, and possibly for nearly twenty.  She enjoyed a prosperous reign as attested by her building activities, as in the temple of Amun at Karnak and her mortuary temple on the west bank at Thebes."

(51) 4 out of 2-300 kings were female in nearly 3000 years.

(52) Tiye: "Her name appears alongside Amenhotep's or alone on cosmetic objects and countless scarabs."

Tiye was a powerful queen who engaged in foreign relations and was worshiped as a manifestation of Hathor, the Egyptian Aphrodite.  Some scholars suppose Tiye's father may have come from foreign stock.  She was also the mother of the famous Akhenaten, who tried almost single-handedly to convert Egypt to the worship of an almost monotheistic form of worship of Aten or the sun god.  His also powerful wife was Nefertiti:

(53) Nefertiti:   "No other queen was even shown so frequently on the monuments, in temples, tombs, and statuary."

Nefertitit is shown as offering directly to Aten. 

It is an interesting coincidence that the one quasi-monotheistic king in all Egypt's long history, should also happen to have given his wife an almost uniquely exalted position, and that her mother was also one of Egypt's three or four great female rulers.  Maybe this is all a coincidence.  But this may also suggest some relationship between monotheism and reform which is worth attending to.  

(58) "In a long papyrus from later in the New Kingdom, we learn that a widow called Rennefer brought up three children born to a slave girl whom her husband Nebnefer had purchased.  Since the couple's marriage was childless, it is possible that the girl had been bought specifically to provide offspring and that these children were fathered by Nebnefer."

A trick desperate housewives Sarah, Leah, and Rachel also turned.  

(60) Documents award money to wife in case of divorce, children to husband. 

(63) "From about 500 BC onwards, there is evidence that women could initiate the divorce, in which case infidelity on the part of the man might also have been a cause."

(64) Workmen's village at Deir el-Medina "The physical layout of the houses does not seem designed to accommodate a man and more than one wife, and the register of the villagers listed house by house does not, on surviving portions at least, name more than one wife per household."

(67) 20th Dynasty, a woman named Naunakht was widowed by death of husband in 60s, she remarried and had eight children.  (And inherited property.)  Clearly, she must have been quite young when she married a man three times her age or more.

"While married men might have sexual relations with women other than their own wives, married women were not supposed to have affairs with other men."

Infidelity on the part of the woman "is deplored in the texts and that men are criticized for having affairs with married women."  But consorting with prostitutes was criticized mainly a waste of time. 

(69) Tale of Two Brothers (New Kingdom) when a man discovers his wife had tried to seduce his younger brother, "he killed the wife (and) cast her to the dogs."   

Divorce was more likely in real life, Robins argues.  Of course there is no parallel to Hosea and Gomer mentioned here!  

(75) Instruction of Any (New Kingdom): "When you prosper and found your house, and love your wife with ardor . . . Gladden her heart as long as you life, she is a fertile field for her lord." 
Image result for blues brothers on stage
"Hold the one you love!"

The first part (not the agricultural metaphor) is reminiscent of Ecclesiastes, "Enjoy life with the wife you love all the days of the passing life which He grants you under the sun."  Also the Blues Brothers: "Hold the one you love!"  (Not that that would much help Elwood and Jake in Joliet!)  

(77) "Later the wife, Rennefer, emancipates three children born to a slave woman that she and Nebnefer had purchased.  A male relative of Rennefer marries the eldest girl, and he and the three children are adopted by Rennefer as her heirs.  The implication is that Nebnefer fathered the three children on the slave."

This helps explain Sarah's original plan, and the plan of her grandson's two daughters, for procuring children through their maids.  Clearly that was the way to go if you weren't up to childbirth yourself.  This is also interesting in light of the story of Moses, who was adopted by an Egyptian princess and thus free, even though born the child of two slaves.  In addition:

(89) ". . . wet-nurses are attested for royal children and also in elite scribal families."

Which Moses is recorded as having.  

(92) "Mistress of the house" was a common title for elite women from at least the 12 Dynasty.

"Do not control your wife in her house.  When you know she is efficient, don't say to her, 'Where is it?  Get it!'  When she has put it in the right place.  Let your eye observe in silence, then you observe her skill." (Instruction of Any)

Robins points out that this implies that if one's wife is not efficient in her household management, that might necessitate male intervention even in the female sphere.  

(102) Robins suggests that it is because women were bared from formal bureaucracy that many high-ranking women became priestesses of Hathor and provider of music in temple cults.

"Because the workmen at Deir el-Medina were government employees with special status they were provided with female slaves, who in fact belonged to the state.  Their sole purpose seems to have been to grind grain."

(103) A Middle Kingdom scroll gives the occupation of 29 female house servants: twenty are connected with weaving.

(105) "A wealthy merchant class never developed in Egypt."

Egyptian society remained hierarchical and remarkably static as Rodney Stark describes it in Discovering God, without such forms of civil society developing.  (And even the religious sphere seems to have been eventually swallowed up by the state -- more research required, I am following hints here.)  Egypt could nevertheless thrive because of the river, which made it a bread basket.  Egyptian culture was the product of sun and water and soil, with it seems a few simple and highly conservative, lasting ideas, deep respect for the past, and for the dead.  

(107) In a letter to his dead mother in an early dynasty, a man reminds her how he had tried to please her.   "You did say this to your son: 'Bring me quails that I may eat them,' and this your son brought to you seven quails, and you did eat them."

A rare glimpse of a simple family event.  

Teaching of Dwaf's son Khety: "Thank god for your father and your mother, who put you on the path of life." 

In tomb chapels women are "almost invisible."

(111) "If women were responsible for running the household, they were by no means confined to the house." 

The state was run by men: 

"It was boys who were sent to school and encouraged to devote their efforts to becoming scribes.  Since women could not join the bureaucracy they had no official need of the skills of literacy, and therefore no need for formal training in them.  This does not necessarily mean that women never learned to read and write, but unfortunately there is no firm evidence one way or the other."

(116) "The evidence seems to show that while men could oversee women, women probably did not oversee men." 

"In the Middle Kingdom, women still had a few administrative titles, but they seem to have been fewer and even less common than in the Old Kingdom."

In some ways, such as the ability to divorce, it seems that women gained in later years.  But governing power seems to have slipped further from their fingers.  

(119) Men are titled "baker," but no record of a woman with that title has survived!  "Scenes of cooking show meat either roasted on a hand-held spit over a fire, or boiled in a pot; the cooks are men."

Female dancers.  Sailors were all men.  Private estates "Male figures far outnumber female ones." 

(121) Women are shown following harvesters collecting fallen ears in woven baskets.  This is interesting, in light of the Book of Ruth.  

(124) Ramses V, state-owned land leased to tenants, 10% are women. 

(127) Wives and daughters could inherit, (129) do some business, sometimes initiate lawsuits. 

(136) During the reign of Ramses II, one finds the tomb of a man named Mose.  (Remember the Pharaoh in Out of Egypt was called Ramses!)  

New Kingdom: in theory, men and women were equal before the law.  "Not only could women inherit, own, and dispose of property in their own right, they could enter into business deals, and they could enter into court as plaintiff, defendant, or witness, on an equal footing with men."  Better than Egypt today?   Some Arab countries, anyway.  

(138) "It is usual for an official to assert that he has fed the hungry, clothed the naked, given to him who had not, and this list of good works includes claims that he was the 'husband of the widow,' 'the supporter of widows,' 'a helped to the widow,' and one 'who paid attention to the voice of the widow . . . who anointed the widow who had nothing."  Instructions also against oppressing widows."

On caring for widows, Egyptian and Jewish writings agree.  

(144) "Even in the court of Hathor, women did not rise to hold positions in the administration but were always under the authority of a man." 

(145) From 18th Dynasty at least, "women no longer held priestly titles."  The priesthood was part of the bureaucracy, which men ran. 

(164)  "Women shared in the same afterlife as men expected to enjoy, and they received burials basically similar to those of men."  Only the men's stuff was usually richer.

(180)  Women's skin is represented as far lighter, that of men darker reddish, reflecting the fact that women were usually indoors. 

(184) The motif of an almost naked adolescent girl was popular in ancient Egypt (as it remains today).  

(188) Tilapia "symbol of rebirth in Egyptian art," protects the sun god on his daily journey.  The young sun god came forth from a lotus, which was also symbol of rebirth like the sun. 

Interesting symbols, considering that tilapia was probably the fish that Jesus caught in such abundance on the Sea of Galilee.  

(191) "The student of classical Greek art may suspect that the ancient Greeks never really liked women at all.  Egyptian art gives rise to no such doubts.  The beauty of the young female form has never been more acutely realized, and even if ancient Egyptian men felt both superior to and afraid of women, the texts and monuments that they have left behind also reveal that they loved and respected them.  Nevertheless . . . in general women occupied a secondary position in relation to women throughout ancient Egyptian history."  (Maybe less so than modern Egyptian or at least Arab history!)

Conclusions:  The status of women in ancient Egypt was clearly subordinate, but not grotesquely so.  Men were firmly in charge of all government at almost all periods of history.  Women were consigned mostly to the home, to weaving and production of grain, but excluded from most more active professions.  This may be why women are represented as being more light than men -- in the hot Egyptian sun, it wouldn't have taken much time out of doors to build up a good tan!  One dreads to ask what the incidence of skin cancer was . . . 

On the other hand, one meets with no grotesque injustices towards women, such as confinement in the home, binding of feet, human sacrifice, or burning of widows.  There is a fair amount of polygamy and a double standard, but nothing we don't see almost everywhere in that era.  Women may leave the home, travel, and buy and sell, to the extent that it is safe to do so.  (Concerns are expressed.)  They inherit and some own a little property, usually fields large enough to grow grain for three or four people.  

What is most plainly missing from Robins' accounts of 3000 years of ancient Egyptian life, are any hints of real heroes or heroines.  One king and his lovely and unusually powerful wife do attempt religious innovation, but they are erased from later records as if they had never existed.  Egyptian history flows endlessly, like the Nile, and human figures rise like stone beside the river, speaking in clipped modulation, like the most staid National Park recordings, or like crocodiles justifying their virtue.  

What freedom and humanity burst from the starkly contrasting pages of the Old Testament, by contrast!  Perhaps this is the liberty of the tribe.  We meet real men and women, who love and hate and sin and sacrifice to save their families, who cry out to God in sorrow, who confront kings and lead bands of warriors, who snark at husbands and spy on neighbor ladies taking baths.  

Why is that?  What was the liberating secret of Jewish history? 

Image result for syndrome incredibles
"When everyone
is special-- no
one will be." 
No doubt it was partly a return to the God of Creation, who made them male and female.  Before God, all kings are mortal men, and don't have to dress up and pretend otherwise.  Even saints are sinners, and sinners may become saints.  

The secret of a good adventure story is limitations.  Jack has adventures, the giant does not.  David also fights a giant, and has many adventures before he becomes king.  

It is our limitations, which Egyptian art tried to paper over for the most part it seems, which allow us to be human.   And it is restraint on the power of the powerful that gives the rest of us the chance for freedom.  

Which makes me fear for our time.  We are gaining superhuman power through technology, which may ultimately kill the opportunity for the adventures which weakness and limitations alone allow.  

One secret of the Old Testament lay in regularizing the freedom of anarchistic tribal society within regularized but balanced institutions of state power that allowed little Israel to compete and even thrive between great ancient empires, while giving its citizens greater liberty.  And clearly, that included women.  


the mediocrecommission said...

Hi David - fascinating post. Going back to what you said about the tragedy about polygamy, I have always wondered about Nathan's rebuke of David in that fantastic part of 2 Sam 12 where he says that "You are that man!" He then goes on to say that if David had wanted more women, God would have given them to him. Am I reading that wrong? As always - I enjoy your blog.

David B Marshall said...

Thanks. Yes, C. S. Lewis seemed to be right, as usual -- God's self-revelation came gradually, though one gets the feeling even with Abraham that polygamy wasn't quite right. Remember, God warns Israel against demanding a king precisely because he'll take away the youth. In practice, that's what you almost always get with a strong chief executive.