In today’s society women are looked upon ignorantly by the male gender. This attitude derived from the naïve men of the Old Testament. They did not see women as being an important part of history and therefore hardly spoke of them. When women were mentioned it was usually in a condescending fashion. Even with genealogies in the Old Testament women were not listed as if to show that they were not important and of no concern. Women in the Old Testament our viewed as being inferior to men, sexual predators, and an item of property.
In the first creation story (Genesis 1:27) God is described as creating man, both male and female at the same time. This might be interpreted as implying equality between the two genders. But in the second creation story, (Genesis 2:7) God formed only a man. Realizing that he needed a helper (Genesis 2:18), God marched all of the animals past Adam (Genesis 2:19-20) looking for a suitable animal.
Finding none suitable, God created Eve out of one of Adam’s ribs. The term “helper” has historically been interpreted as implying an inferior role for Eve. (“The Hebrew translated word helper is used twenty-one times in the Old Testament: twenty of these cases refer to help from a superior.”)(Coogan 813)Adam later asserts his authority over Eve by naming her.
In Genesis 19 the men of Sodom gathered around Lot’s house, and asked that he bring his two guests out so that the men can “know” them. This in frequently interpreted as a desire to gang rape the visitors, although other interpretations are possible. Lot offers his two virgin daughters to be raped instead. Yet, even after this despicable act, Lot is still regarded as an honorable man, worth saving from the destruction of the city. Allowing one’s daughters to be sexually assaulted by multiple rapists appears to be treated as a minor transgression, because of the low status of the young women. A man could simultaneously keep numerous concubines. These were sexual partners of an even lower status than a wife was. As implied in Genesis 21:10, she could be dismissed when no longer needed.
Another example of this inferiority to men it is the book of Exodus. In Exodus 20:17 it lists the last of the Ten Commandments. It forbids coveting your neighbor’s house, wife, slaves, animals or anything else that the neighbor owns. The wife is clearly regarded as equivalent to a piece of property and in no way would a piece of property be superior to a man. Also in Exodus 21:22-25 it describes a situation in which two men are fighting and hit a pregnant woman. If the woman has a miscarriage because of the blow, the men must pay a fine for their act – not to the woman, but to her husband, presumably because he has been deprived of a child.
Leviticus 12:1-5 explains that a woman who has given birth to a boy is ritually unclean for 33 days. If the baby is a girl, the mother is unclean for 66 days. It would appear that the act of having a baby is a highly polluting act. To give birth to a girl is twice as polluting as is giving birth to a boy.
In Leviticus 18:20 and 20:10, adultery was defined as a man having sexual intercourse with his neighbor’s wife. Deuteronomy 22:23 extends this prohibition to a man sleeping with a woman who is engaged to be married. If a man has an affair with an unmarried woman, the act is not considered adultery. Although God wanted men to only have one wife, married men on many occasions visited prostitutes and received no punishment for this sin. This was a double standard among the sexes for a woman got severely punished if she committed such a sin. A man who committed adultery did not commit a wrongful act against his wife, but rather against his male neighbor implying that a woman did not matter.
Another example of where the Bible insists that men are more important than women is in Leviticus 27:6. A child aged 1 month to five years of age was worth 5 shekels if a boy and 3 shekels if a girl and in Numbers 3:15 it shows that a census counted only male infants over the age of one month, boys and men. Females were not considered worthy of being included.
Women were also thought of as inferior when it came to things such as rituals. InNumbers 5:11-31 women were forced to perform a magic ritual if their husbands suspected them of having had an affair. A priest prepared a potion composed of holy water mixed with sweepings from the floor of the tabernacle. He proclaimed a curse over the potion and required the woman to drink it. If she were guilty, she would suffer greatly: her abdomen would swell and her thighs would waste away. There was no similar magical test for husbands suspecting of having an affair with another woman. The two genders were treated differently simply because one presumed that the man was superior.
When it came to such things like goods and inheritance the same concept of women being inferior took place again. In Numbers 27:8-11, Moses described the rules of inheritance that God has stated. If a man died, his son inherited the estate; his daughter received nothing. If there was no son, then his daughter inherited. If there were no children, then the estate was given to the man’s brothers; his sister(s) received nothing.The more important people, meaning the men, received everything and the women only got something when there were no men. Also in Numbers chapter 30 it described that a vow taken by a man was binding. But her father could nullify a vow taken by a woman, if she was still living in her family of origin, or by her husband, if she was married.
In the book of Deuteronomy it described how a soldier could marry a woman captive without regard for her wishes (21:10-13). It also required that a woman be a virgin when she was married. If she had had sexual relations while single in her father’s house, then she would be stoned to death. There were no similar virginity requirements for men (22:13-21). It also required that a virgin woman who had been raped must marry her attacker, no matter what her feelings were towards the rapist (22:28-29). Along with marriage went divorce. In Deuteronomy it described the procedure for obtaining a divorce. This could only be initiated by the husband, not by the wife because the male held all the power in the relationship.
Another example of degrading women was during the Second Temple period, when women were not allowed to testify in court trials. “They could not go out in public, or talk to strangers. When outside of their homes, they were to be doubly veiled. They had become second-class Jews, excluded from the worship and teaching of God, with status scarcely above that of slaves” (Callaway 201).
Another way in which women were portrayed in the Old Testament was as sexual predators. In Genesis 19:30-36 Lot’s two daughters made their father drunk with wine on two successive nights. Each daughter committed incest with her father, and became pregnant. Their two sons, Moab and Ben-Ammi became the patriarchs of the Moabite and Ammonite people, who were two of Israel’s most serious foes. This instance portrayed women as sexual aggressors and made them look very distasteful and worthy of no respect.
Another example of how women were looked upon as sexual predators was in Judges 16 where Delilah seduced Samson in order to find out the secret of his great strength. This ultimately led to Samson’s death. This passage allowed the women to be thought of as deceitful and knifing and made it look as though all women would be willing to use themselves to obtain what they wanted. It basically was telling the reader to be very cautious of females for they were worthy of deceit.
In 1 Kings 11 it once again described women as sexual predators. It talked about how Solomon’s many foreign wives and concubines convinced him to worship other gods and build Pagan temples. This led to his downfall. This chapter puts all the blame onto the woman saying that they are bad influences.
Along with being inferior to men and sexual predators a girl, in the Old Testament, was considered the property of her father. At marriage, her ownership was transferred to her new husband. The women were just pieces of property that the man owned. In Exodus 21:4 a slaveowner was permitted to give a woman to his male slave as a wife. There was no indication that women were consulted during this type of transaction. In Exodus 21:7 a father could sell his daughter as a slave. Also, in Exodus 21:7, a male slave was given his freedom after 6 years; but a female slave remained a slave forever.
Going along with the concept of a woman being a piece of property, Exodus 22:1-17 deals with restitution in case of stealing or damage to a person’s property. The final verses deal with the case of a man who seduces a virgin. This was seen as a property offense against the woman’s father. The seducer was required to pay money to her father, even if he did not marry the woman. The money would be in compensation for the damage to the father’s property – his daughter.
Although most of the Old Testament demoralizes women there are some exceptions. For instance, in Exodus 1:17-21, Hebrew midwives were able to outsmart the Pharaoh and save the lives of the Jewish baby boys. In Exodus 2, the birth mother of Moses was able to circumvent the Pharaoh’s order to kill all of the baby boys, and to save her child.
There are other books as well that depicted women rationally. Joshua 2:1-16 describes how Rahab, a prostitute, hid two Israelite spies and saved their lives by misdirecting the soldiers. Although she was a prostitute she still contributed greatly to Joshua’s army thus showing women in a respectable way. There were other instances where the women were shown as intelligent and able to contribute something to society. Some of which include Judges 4 and 5, where Deborah is described as both a Judge of Israel and as the leader of the army and in 1 Samuel 19:11-13, where David’s first wife, Michal, tricked soldiers and engineered David’s escape.
The Hebrew Scriptures describe many other Prophetesses, including Miriam, Noadiah, and Isaiah’s wife. Throughout the Scriptures, Wisdom was visualized as a type of female Goddess who was present at the creation of the world, and who has intervened in human affairs. This showed that women were capable of having knowledge and wisdom giving her the respect she deserved.
Aside from these very few exceptions, the position and importance of women in the Jewish culture was defined in the Old Testament, and in the interpretation of those scriptures, which then became traditions. Women were almost completely confined to their father or husband’s home. If they did get to leave the house than they were required to be doubly veiled. Since women were considered to be inferior to men they were therefore under the authority of men. When a women was married she was said to passed from being under her father’s authority to her husband’s. Many of the laws were heavily biased towards the men. Some of these laws were the laws of inheritance, betrothal, and divorce. For example, a girl could not refuse a marriage arrangement that was made by her father. Women were also not allowed to testify in court trials. “They were excluded from much of the ritual religious life of the Jewish men, especially from the studying of the Torah. As a result of not studying the Torah, many women were not allowed to teach their own children” (Daniels). There were a few checks and balances that gave women a few rights (such as the right of maintenance that they received instead of inheritance) (Daniels) but overall women led restricted and secluded lives, which resulted in women having roles of little or no authority. This practice of women being the inferior gender is still around today. Women have not had an equal opportunity from the start. They have always been portrayed in a bad connotation whether that was inferiority to men, sexual predators, or being thought of as no more important than an item of property.
Callaway, M.C. Women in the Old Testament. San Fransisco: Harper, 1999.
Coogan, M.D. The Oxford Companion to the Bible. New York: Oxford, 1993.
Hoffman, R.J. What the Bible Really Says. San Fransisco: Harper, 1999.
Holy Bible. Colorado Springs: International Bible Society, 1973.
http://www.scs.unr.edu/~fdaniels/rel/women.htm leads to an essay entitled The Role of Women in the Church by Frank Daniels
Cite this Sexual Inequality in the Old Testament Essay
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