Monday, May 29, 2017

Women as Isaiah and Jeremiah see them.

The works of the Jewish prophets carry deep significance for the status and well-being of women (and men) around the world.  The prophets were on fire with divine passion against injustice and oppression.  No one ever wrote with greater eloquence on behalf of the marginalized.  One hears powerful echoes of the Old Testament prophets in the speeches of Martin Luther King, for instance.   But more importantly, Jesus should be seen as the last and greatest of the Jewish prophets.   Jesus quotes from Isaiah when he announces his ministry:

"The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
Image result for jesus spirit of lord upon me    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners,
  to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
    and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
   and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
    instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
    instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
    instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    a planting of the Lord
    for the display of his splendor."

This passage does not mention women, yet like any other prophetic writings, carries profound implications for reform which would improve the lives of billions of women around the world. 

"Freedom for captives."  "Release for prisoners."  "Comfort for those who mourn."

In an early post of this series, I described how the words of Isaiah moved me and inculcated concern in my heart for girls who had been imprisoned in brothels in Southeast Asia.   I believe that prophetic urge, which also inspired Jesus and thus his followers, has radically changed the world for the better.  "The spirit of the Lord is upon" them, to proclaims "good news" to the poor and oppressed. 

Most passages related to women in Isaiah and Jeremiah (and in Lamentations, in which Jeremiah poured out his sorrow after the horrors of the fall of Jerusalem), however, revolve around other themes:

(a) The most common, especially in Jeremiah (but also in other prophetic books) compares God to a loving husband, and Israel or Judah to an adulterous bride.  Indeed, as we shall see, one of the minor prophets is instructed to marry a prostitute to illustrate the unfaithfulness of Israel.  Idolatry is the chief sin referred to by these passages.  Monogamy is thus explicitly compared to monotheism: as a woman should make love only to her husband, so Jehovah is the only God for Israel, indeed the only God of all nations, creator of the whole world.  It is natural that a nation be compared to a woman rather than a man first, because God is presented as the party actively seeking a lover, taking the more proactive role that men are usually assumed to assume in mating, and second, because in a polygamous culture, men could seek additional wives, so the analogy wouldn't make much sense the other way around.  (Though I have already indicated several ways in which the OT narrative undermines polygamy.) 

But not only Israel and Judah, Ammon and Babylon are also described as women who have sinned in various ways.  Babylon has committed what C. S. Lewis called the "Great Sin" of pride or arrogance, along with cruelty.  (Themes which John will apply to Rome in the New Testament book of Revelations.) 

(b) The obligation to care for widows is occasionally repeated.  (Which is part of the prophetic call to justice.) 

(c) Sins which women have committed, particularly in the aggregate, are described and condemned. 

(d) The worship of the Queen of Heaven being one of those sins, described by Jeremiah.

(e) Women are described as suffering from and mourning the fall of their nations, and as rejoicing when Israel returns from its exile. 


(170) You're So Vain!

3.16-24: "The Lord says, 'The women of Zion are haughty, walking along with outstretched necks, flirting with their eyes, strutting along with swaying hips, with ornaments jingling on their ankles.
Therefore the Lord will bring sores on the heads of the women of Zion; the Lord will make their scalps bald.'  In that day the Lord will snatch away their finery: the bangles and headbands and crescent necklaces,  the earrings and bracelets and veils,  the headdresses and anklets and sashes, the perfume bottles and charms,  the signet rings and nose rings,  the fine robes and the capes and cloaks, the purses and mirrors, and the linen garments and tiaras and shawls.  Instead of fragrance there will be a stench; instead of a sash, a rope; instead of well-dressed hair, baldness; instead of fine clothing, sackcloth; instead of beauty, branding."

(171) Where are all the men?   

4.1: "In that day seven women will take hold of one man and say, “We will eat our own food  and provide our own clothes; only let us be called by your name.  Take away our disgrace!”

This reminds us that polygamy can be both the cause and effect of warfare.

(172) The poor can be wicked, too.

9.17: "Therefore the Lord will take no pleasure in the young men, nor will he pity the fatherless and widows, for everyone is ungodly and wicked, every mouth speaks folly."

(173) Preying upon Widows

10. 1-2: "Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless."

(174) Weak like women.

19: 16: "In that day the Egyptians will become weaklings. They will shudder with fear at the uplifted hand that the Lord Almighty raises against them."

Another translation says "like women," which seems to be correct. 

The assumption seems to be, incredible as modern Americans may find it, that men are physically stronger than women, and therefore tend to make better soldiers.  That is, unless God is on the other side, in which case, human strength is no help.

Modern American Christians are supposed to feel embarrassed by such crude stereotyping, maybe. 

(175)  Mourn, Women!

32.9-: "You women who are so complacent,  rise up and listen to me; you daughters who feel secure, hear what I have to say!  In little more than a year you who feel secure will tremble;
the grape harvest will fail, and the harvest of fruit will not come.  Tremble, you complacent women; shudder, you daughters who feel secure.  Strip off your fine clothes  and wrap yourselves in rags.  Beat your breasts for the pleasant fields, or the fruitful vines and for the land of my people, a land overgrown with thorns and briers -- yes, mourn for all houses of merriment and for this city of revelry."

(176)  Daughter of Zion

37.22: "Virgin Daughter Zion despises and mocks you.  Daughter Jerusalem tosses her head as you flee.  Who is it you have ridiculed and blasphemed?  Against whom have you raised your voice and lifted your eyes in pride?  Against the Holy One of Israel!"

In the prophets, cities and nations, rather than storms, are given female personalities, in both positive and negative contexts.     

(177) The Fall of Babylon

47: 1-9 “Go down, sit in the dust,  Virgin Daughter Babylon sit on the ground without a throne, queen city of the Babylonians.
No more will you be called tender or delicate.
Take millstones and grind flour; make off your veil.
Lift up your skirts, bare your legs, and wade through the streams.
our nakedness will be expose and your shame uncovered.
I will take vengeance; I will spare no one.

 Our Redeemer—the Lord Almighty is his name-   is the Holy One of Israel.
“Sit in silence, go into dark queen city of the Babylonians;
no more will you be called  queen of kingdoms.
I was angry with my people  and desecrated my inheritance;
I gave them into your hand, and you showed them no mercy.
Even on the aged you laid a very heavy yoke.
You said, ‘I am forever the eternal queen!’
But you did not consider these things or reflect on what might happen.
Now then, listen, you lover of pleasure, lounging in your security and saying to yourself,
    ‘I am, and there is none besides me, I will never be a widow  or suffer the loss of children.’
 Both of these will overtake you in a moment, on a single day: loss of children and widowhood.
They will come upon you in full measure, in spite of your many sorceries and all your potent spells."

And so it is pride, not ethnicity  or gender per se, which brings Babylon low.   Babylon is punished for pride and cruelty, not merely for being "other."

(178)  Love Great than that of a Mother 

49. 15: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget, I will not forget you!"

(179)  The Nations will act as porters to your daughters and their queens will nurse you.

49.22-23: "This is what the Sovereign Lord says: See, I will beckon to the nations,  I will lift up my banner to the peoples; they will bring your sons in their arms
    and carry your daughters on their hips.  Kings will be your foster fathers, and their queens your nursing mothers.  They will bow down before you with their faces to the ground."

(180)  God is your husband and will have you back. 

54: 4-7: "You will forget the shame of your youth and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood.
For your Maker is your husband  the Lord Almighty is his name—the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer;  he is called the God of all the earth.
  The Lord will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit—a wife who married young, only to be rejected,” says your God.
   “For a brief moment I abandoned you but with deep compassion I will bring you back."

(181)  Israel's sluttish behavior.

57.7-10: "You have made your bed on a high and lofty hill; there you went up to offer your sacrifices.
Behind your doors and your doorposts you have put your pagan symbols.
Forsaking me, you covered your bed, you climbed into it and opened it wide you made a pact with those whose beds you love, and you looked with lust on their naked bodies.
You went to Molek with olive oil and increased your perfumes.
You sent your ambassadors far away; you descended to the very realm of the dead!
You wearied yourself by such going about, but you would not say, ‘It is hopeless.’
You found renewal of your strength, and so you did not faint."


(182)  Israel, my Bride.

2.1: "I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me."

(183)  Israel goes Whoring

2.20: "Indeed, on every high hill and under every spreading tree you lay down as a prostitute."

"Does a young woman forget her jewelry, a bride her wedding ornaments?
Yet my people have forgotten me, days without number.
 How skilled you are at pursuing love!  Even the worst of women can learn from your ways.
On your clothes is found the lifeblood of the innocent poor, though you did not catch them breaking in."

(184) An Unclean Wife

3.1: "If a man divorces his wife and she leaves him and marries another man, should he return to her again?
    Would not the land be completely defiled?
But you have lived as a prostitute with many lovers would you now return to me?"

(185) Return, Faithless People!

3.7-10: "I thought that after she had done all this she would return to me but she did not, and her unfaithful sister Judah saw it. I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries. Yet I saw that her unfaithful sister Judah had no fear; she also went out and committed adultery.   Because Israel’s immorality mattered so little to her, she defiled the land and committed adultery with stone and wood.   In spite of all this, her unfaithful sister Judah did not return to me with all her heart, but only in pretense,” declares the Lord."

3. 12-14: "‘I will not be angry forever.  Only acknowledge your guilt—you have rebelled against the Lord your God, you have scattered your favors to foreign gods under every spreading tree,
    and have not obeyed me,’ declares the Lord“Return, faithless people,” declares the Lord, 'for I am your husband.'"

(186) Do not Oppress Widows or kill the innocent 

7.6-8: "If you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm,  then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever."

Foreigners and widows are those in a community who lack a social network.  Marginalized women were most often accused of witchcraft in the Middle Ages, including (famously) the mother of the great scientist, Johan Kepler.  (Who defended her successfully.)  Verses like these scattered throughout the Old Testament in effect warn against scape-goating, which often did involve the shedding of innocent blood.  (Witch-hunters failed to fulfill the legal requirement for proof as well.) 

(187)  Judgement for Mothers

15:8-9: "I will make their widows more numerous than the sand of the sea.
At midday I will bring a destroyer against the mothers of their young men;
suddenly I will bring down on them anguish and terror.
The mother of seven will grow faint and breathe her last.
Her sun will set while it is still day; she will be disgraced and humiliated.
I will put the survivors to the sword before their enemies,” declares the Lord."

This may be partly a way of saying "The young men are going to die in battle," but of course may also point to the women's own guilt. 

(188)  Adultery

29:23: "For they have done outrageous things in Israel; they have committed adultery with their neighbors’ wives . . . "

(189)  Dancing after weeping. 

31. 13, 15-17: "Then young women will dance and be glad, young men and old as well . . . "

"This is what the Lord says: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted,  because they are no more.”
 This is what the Lord says: “Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded,
declares the Lord. “They will return from the land of the enemy."

(190)  Against Infanticide.

32. 35: "They built high places for Baal in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molek, though I never commanded—nor did it enter my mind—that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin."

The stand the Bible took against human sacrifice saved the lives of many boys and girls.   Stark explains that the early Church adopted this proscription on infanticide, which is one of the reasons Christianity grew. 

(191)  You're free!   Nope, changed my mind. 

34.9-11: "Everyone was to free their Hebrew slaves, both male and female; no one was to hold a fellow Hebrew in bondage.  So all the officials and people who entered into this covenant agreed that they would free their male and female slaves and no longer hold them in bondage. They agreed, and set them free.   But afterward they changed their minds and took back the slaves they had freed and enslaved them again."

The assumption is that manumission, at least of fellow believers, is a good thing.  When Europe took the view that one should not enslave fellow Christians, slavery was on the ropes, because Europe was a much broader geographical entity than Israel. 

(192)  The Queen of Heaven

44. 15-25: "Then all the men who knew that their wives were burning incense to other gods, along with all the women who were present—a large assembly—and all the people living in Lower and Upper Egypt, said to Jeremiah,  'We will not listen to the message you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord!   We will certainly do everything we said we would: We will burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and will pour out drink offerings to her just as we and our ancestors, our kings and our officials did in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. At that time we had plenty of food and were well off and suffered no harm.  But ever since we stopped burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have had nothing and have been perishing by sword and famine.

"The women added, 'When we burned incense to the Queen of Heaven and poured out drink offerings to her, did not our husbands know that we were making cakes impressed with her image and pouring out drink offerings to her?'

"Then Jeremiah said to all the people, both men and women, who were answering him, 'Did not the Lord remember and call to mind the incense burned in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem by you and your ancestors, your kings and your officials and the people of the land?   When the Lord could no longer endure your wicked actions and the detestable things you did, your land became a curse and a desolate waste without inhabitants, as it is today.   Because you have burned incense and have sinned against the Lord and have not obeyed him or followed his law or his decrees or his stipulations, this disaster has come upon you, as you now see.'

"Then Jeremiah said to all the people, including the women, 'Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah in Egypt.   This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: You and your wives have done what you said you would do when you promised, ‘We will certainly carry out the vows we made to burn incense and pour out drink offerings to the Queen of Heaven.’"

A variety of female deities were worshipped as the Queen of Heaven in the ancient Middle East, including Inanna and Isis, later Hera or Juno, and it is hard to be sure to whom these Jews were offering libations.  At any rate, they had come to the conclusion that monotheism wasn't working for them. 

What does worshipping a female deity have to do with the status of women?  I'm not sure that is bears much relation at all.  After all, human sacrifice did a brisk business in India in the regions where Kali was worshipped, even as the status of women sunk lower and lower.  But that is mere anecdotal evidence.  The United Nations data cited earlier in this series certainly does not seem to reflect particularly high status for women in polytheistic or recently polytheistic societies like India, Nepal, and sub-Saharan Africa.  Guan Yin was the most popular deity in East Asia, probably, even while foot-binding became more popular, and women were excluded from education (before the Jehovah-worshipping missionaries arrived and started schools for girls, and challenged foot-binding.) 

(193)  Ammon is also a Daughter of God - an unfaithful one.   

49. 4: "Unfaithful Daughter Ammon, you trust in your riches and say, ‘Who will attack me?’"

(194)  Weak as Women.

50:37: "A sword against her horses and chariots and all the foreigners in her ranks!
    They will become weaklings."

As women, apparently. 


There is little cheerful about this book, or the historical events that it chronicles from the ground up.  In the history of warfare, how many such books could be written?  A Lamentations could have written such an account for Nanjing, for Changsha, for Warsaw, for Moscow and Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Tokyo and Berlin and Dresden.  (Indeed, a Catholic doctor did write a lamentations of sorts for Nagasaki.)  Thousands of such books could be written.  It is good that one was, though the full history would make depressing reading, like the Black Book of Communism, or Elie Wiesel's Night

Again, we only attend to passages that touch on women -- whose lot was horrific, in the aftermath of Babylon's conquest.

(195) Jerusalem is a Widow

1.1.  "How deserted lies the city, once so full of people!
How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations!
She who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave."

(196) The Fall of Jerusalem touches everyone. 

2.10-12, 20: "The elders of Daughter Zion sit on the ground in silence; they have sprinkled dust on their heads and put on sackcloth.
The young women of Jerusalem have bowed their heads to the ground.
  My eyes fail from weeping, am in torment within;
my heart is poured out on the ground because my people are destroyed, because children and infants faint in the streets of the city.
   They say to their mothers, 'Where is bread and wine?' as they faint like the wounded in the streets of the city, as their lives ebb away in their mothers’ arms."

“Look, Lord, and consider:    Whom have you ever treated like this?
Should women eat their offspring,
    the children they have cared for?
Should priest and prophet be killed
    in the sanctuary of the Lord?

(197) Mourning for the daughter of my people. 

3.48: "Streams of tears flow from my eyes because my people are destroyed." ("daughter of my people")

(198)  Rape and loss. 

5.3, 11: "We have become fatherless, our mothers are widows."

"Women have been violated in Zion, and virgins in the towns of Judah."

While those killed in battle are male, the prophet Jeremiah recognizes that the ax has fallen up the city's women as heavily, or even more heavily, and he faces unflinchingly from their sorrowful
fate, with tears running down his cheeks.  Mature women are left widows (with who to support them now?)   Girls are raped.  Children die of hunger in their mothers' arms. 
The prophets speak about big, national events, but they do so from the ground level, the perspective of those who participate in and are touched by them. 

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