THE IMAGE AND ROLE OF WOMEN IN OLD TESTAMENT TEXTS
There is little place for women in the texts of the Old Testament, of its 24 books only two bear the names of women: Ruth and Esther, forming less than 1% of the biblical canon! The authors cared very little about women. They are there in majority, girl, wife and mother, objects of property of the men of the family, father, brother or husband. The stories told to us are therefore those of men in a society totally centered on them and dominated by them. It then seems normal to ask the question of what was the place of women in ancient Israel, their status, their roles, their activities. All the civilizations of the Ancient Near East were marked by a very strong differentiation between the social statuses of man and woman. Israel, which is only a very small part of this ancient world, has strongly inherited this universe and has drawn its cultural roots from these conceptions. The structure of ancient languages itself attests to this biased aspect. The facts told in the biblical texts often correspond to an ideology belonging to the writers of the texts, who were multiple, their writing spanning a period of about 1000 years. It is therefore not a single image of women that we will find there, but a multitude. Understanding this past is therefore a matter of deconstructing the texts. Women often only appear when the action requires it. Many of them don’t even have a name: who knows the name of Noah’s wife? That of the wives of his three sons: Sem, Cham and Japheth, mothers of long lines? Of Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt for disobeying God by turning on Sodom and Gomorrah?. Others are very well known, they are the wives of the patriarchs: Sarah, Rebecca, Léa and Rachel. They hold the secondary roles of wives and mothers whose essential goal is to perpetuate the name of their husband by giving him a son. In other passages, they are part of a list of goods belonging to a man along with his ox, his donkey, and his servants. (Ex. 20.17) or are part of the spoils that men share (Dt. 20.14).
Ruth in the Bible
Esther in the Bible
a) Bad women: dangerous temptresses:
All the men mentioned in the texts are not without fault, most of them are cowards, liars, rapists, adulterers, self-interested or criminals. But it’s the way bad women are portrayed that challenges: Women’s wickedness is usually related to their sexual activity, their actions of temptation, and their strong dominance over men through it. A few examples suffice to convince you of this: — Eve in Gen.3,6 who convinces Adam to eat the forbidden fruit. – Dalilah in Jges 16,15-19 who does so much so that Samson ends up giving him the secret of his strength. – The foreign women whom King Solomon married and who push him to build sanctuaries in Jerusalem to their deities, which is contrary to Yahwism (I R.11,1-8). – The most striking example is that of the daughters of Lot (Gen.19,31-38), the only father/daughter incest mentioned in the Bible, a crime whose fault lies exclusively with them, the authors of the text having ensured that Lot was drunk and therefore unconscious at the time of the events, which clears him of any fault. This story gives a monstrous image of women even if its purpose is to explain the origin of the enemy nations of Israel, Moab and Ammon, called “abominations”, which will come out of this incest. It is in chapter 7 of Proverbs that the most negative images of women are described: those of the foreign woman, the prostitute and the adulteress. The theme of the “foreign” woman is very frequent in the texts. She is depicted as a dangerous temptress, a harmful seductress, who attracts men with sweet words and leads them to their ruin: “Get away from the path that lead to her house” (Prov. 5,8) …”for the lips of the foreigner distil honey, and her palate is sweeter than oil; but in the end….she is…like a two-edged sword” (Prov.5, 3-4). circumcision cannot be practiced on women, they would be de facto excluded from this system of male descent. Not being men, they are other, not being able to be part of this community “having the right sex”. ” has no pejorative connotation. At least until after the exile (period of exile in Babylon from 596 to 536 BC), marriages with a foreign woman were not prohibited in Israel, they were Egyptians (Joseph, Gen. 41,45), Hittites (Gen. 26, 34), Philistines (Jges 14, 1), Midianites (Moses, Ex. 2, 21) were married. Men could also marry a prisoner of war (Dt. 21,10-13) following a very simple process transforming this foreign captive into a legitimate, fit woman. to ensure offspring. The adulterous woman seduces with enticing words: Prov.7,16-18: “I have adorned my bed with blankets, carpets of Egyptian thread, I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes and cinnamon , come, let us be drunk with love until the morning…” Man must be very careful not to fall into her nets “for…they are many who she has slain” (Prov. 7, 25-26). The texts accuse these women of behaving like prostitutes. It is therefore to symbolize betrayal that they use this term but also to qualify the bad morals, the polytheistic religious practices of other nations, – identified with prostitutes -, or those of Israel which have become perverted in contact with them. . Some prostitutes, however, have exemplary behavior: – Rahab, saves the lives of the two spies sent to Jericho by Joshua (Jos.2,1-21) – Tamar, twice widowed of the sons of Judah is not a prostitute but goes behave like one of them to deceive his father-in-law and give him posterity (Gen.38,24). It is thanks to her that Judah is at the origin of the line of King David. If it is not condemned by the texts, it is because the reasons for its conduct are justified.
b) Good mothers and good wives
The texts praise good mothers, good wives who are shown as an example for their devotion. But women have no legal capacity. They are treated as objects and are dependent on men. The young girl belongs to her father who will marry her around the age of 12, in return for a financial consideration called “mohar”. It is therefore acquired by the family of the husband who owns it in the same way as the rest of his property. If she becomes a widow before having had a male heir, the law of Levirate establishes a marriage with a brother of the deceased or, failing that, another man of the family. This law ensures the deceased a posthumous descent because the first boy born of this new union is considered as his and it also protects the widow who, in this patriarchal system, has no status. The fear of the other, the foreigner, encourages endogamous marriage (in the family) as illustrated by certain stories: Abraham marries his half-sister Sarah, he wants Isaac, his son, to marry a woman from his country native (Gen.24,3-4), Amnon, son of David, is in love with his half-sister Tamar (II Sam.13,10-13). We also note that in very ancient times, marriage was monogamous for women and polygamous for men. When the woman is sterile, it is even she who chooses his second wife. Sarah said to Abraham: “Come, I beg you to my servant, perhaps I will have children through her” (Gen.16,2-3). Rachel chooses Bilha for Jacob (Gen.30,1-9). We do not know if in fact this practice was common. But this had to be regulated after the exile because Proverbs exhorts men to fidelity in marriage and the Levitical laws will prohibit marriages with women of too close kinship. Emphasis is placed on the imperative of female fertility and reproductive function. Those who cannot have children are desperate. Rachel expresses it to Jacob forcefully: “give me children or I die!” (Gen.30.1). No woman refuses to be a mother, moreover, they all want to give birth to sons, daughters do not count, it is the mentality of the Ancient Near East. It will also be noted that it is never men who are sterile in the Bible. It is therefore in her role as a parent that the influence and authority of the mother is the most important. Proverbs gives us the clearest picture of women’s authority in the education of children and their equality with men in this matter. Prov.1,8: “my son, keep the precepts of your father and do not reject the teaching of your mother”. This equality between father and mother is found in the commandment: “honor your father and your mother”. Wisdom texts praise these perfect wives/mothers, full of devotion to their families, and there are many correlations between women and wisdom. Emphasis is placed on all the tasks that the wife performs and which provide her husband with his good reputation and wealth – whereas in a patriarchal system one would expect the opposite -.
c) Exemplary women
To behave in an exemplary manner is essentially to act in place of men when the situation requires it and when they are either absent or failing. Thus, Ruth, a widow and a foreigner since Moabite, will save the lineage of her father-in-law by inducing a levirate to ensure her offspring and protect the land heritage, that is to say when there is a risk that the land will be distributed to another family. Esther, will intervene with the Persian king Ahasuerus (Xerxes) and save his people from death. She will establish the Purim holiday, the only one in the Jewish calendar that has been promulgated by a woman. The story of Esther and Ruth – even if they are figures of speech – demonstrate that success and exemplary behavior can come from the weakest, from those who have very little means to act on events. . Other women act in defiance of social conventions when the Community is in danger. Jael, a Kenian, will kill Sisera, leader of the Canaanite army (Jges, 4,17-22) and a few centuries later, Judith – whose book is not part of the biblical canon -, a very pious widow, respected by the elders of his village, will act in their place and kill the leader of the Assyrian army, who, frightened, will flee. All these women embody the spirit of resistance and courage and also the archetype – both masculine and feminine – of the believer and what he must do for his community. Are these women figures of style or do they have a historical reality? We know today that Judith is a theological novel and that the books of Ruth and Esther are certainly also designed to serve as examples, written between the end of the 6th and the end of the 3rd century. av. JC. If they stage women it is because they are images, allegories, representing the nation of Israel in danger, Israel called the wife of Yahweh in the prophetic texts. These are messages addressed to men with the intention of marking their spirits, a call to their resistance and their combativeness which means that if less privileged elements of society like weak women can be heroic then men must manage to do more better. In line with these exemplary women, there are those with a certain authority, a public function (normally reserved for men) and a great autonomy of action and decision. They are the queen mothers, the prophetesses and the wise women.
d) Public women
The texts attest that the queen-mothers are respected: “the king rose to meet her, he prostrated himself before her…” (I R.2,19). They are sometimes used as intermediaries, advisers, thanks to their gifts of mediators between the various political factions, they were to have a great influence and authority on the king and his advisers. Those of the Kingdom of Judah are also listed on the royal lists – we know of 17 of them – which is not the case for the wives of kings! Their role therefore seems much more important than the texts would like to say and they perhaps had a function in the cult that went hand in hand with their political role. Mention should also be made of the women designated as “mothers in Israel”: the prophetesses and the wise women. If they managed to reach us, despite texts centered on men, this reveals that they must have been known, unanimously respected and their activity totally legitimate. Yet we have very few details about their lives. – Myriam, sister of Moses is the first we hear about. We know almost nothing about her except that she is called a prophetess (Ex.15,20), that it seems that she has a role in the cult (Ex.15,20) and that she will be struck by leprosy for having dared to “speak against Moses” (Num, 12,10). Micah 6.4 places her directly alongside Moses and Aaron as guides to the people who came out of Egypt. – Deborah, judge in Israel, first prophetess cited in historical books, advises and guides Barak, general-in-chief of the army of Israel in his battle against the army of Sisera, (Jges,4,5ss) she is therefore also war chief. She is in line with Moses and seems to have great power because Barak insists that she accompany him (Jges 4.8: “if you come with me, I will go, but if you do not come with I will not go”). His presence is therefore absolutely essential. – Houlda is a prophetess in Jerusalem at the end of the 7th century BC. JC. She is certainly a particularly important character since the ruling authorities of the State and King Josiah will go to consult her in place of the prophet Jeremiah (Jer.1,2) to find out if the book found in the Temple is authentic. She will recognize it as being the law of God (II R. 22,14-20). It is therefore a woman who legitimizes the most ancient form of the book of Deuteronomy which will be followed by a reform of worship without precedent in the history of the religion of Israel. Why did you choose a woman to attest to the authenticity of this Book? A question which remains unanswered but which deserves that we stop there. Despite this founding event, Houlda will no longer appear in the writings. – Noadiah is the last prophetess we hear about in the time of Nehemiah and seems to be part of a group of prophets. So we see that prophecy is the religious function most open to women. God therefore speaks to men and women alike. The gift of hearing him and transmitting his message is thus granted to all, without distinction of sex or social status. But we have no writings from the prophetesses while there are many for their male counterparts whose names and details of their lives we also have. Other women have the respect of their male peers, those called “wise women” or “skillful” that we meet only in the texts of II Sam.14,2 and 20,16. Their name is not even mentioned. There were also women called necromancers who invoked the dead and had divinatory practices. Despite a formal prohibition by law, we went to look for them to know the future. King Saul himself will have recourse to it (IS, 28,7). These women therefore had an essential place in the society of ancient Israel: they have public functions within political or religious institutions normally reserved for men, they can exert a great influence on the decisions of men and even kings, they are intelligent, clear-sighted, skilful – we can deduce from this that they must have benefited from a certain education – and their feminine gender does not seem to pose a problem at any time. Finally, the writings tell us about women who exercise certain professions that are reserved for them because they are related to their roles in society. Thus, we find midwives (Gen.35,17), nurses (II Sam.4,4), mourners (Jer.9,17), women working as servants or slaves in the king’s household and who have specialties: “perfumers, cooks, and bakers” (I Sam.8,13), singers (II Sam.19,35), musicians (I Chron.25, 5-6), magicians (Ex.22,18).
Miriam, sister of Moses
Debohra, 1st prophetess
Houlda, prophetess in Jerusalem
The mourners, a profession reserved for women
The images of women offer a variety of very different portraits due to their authors, the date of writing of the texts, their historical or social context, their ideology and their literary genre. Many of them are idealized or exaggerated in one way or another and if we refer to them, women are either temptresses, dangerous strangers that men must avoid, or perfect and wise wives/mothers , some of which are even examples. It is in their religious practices that women will be most criticized by the texts and in the fact that they exert a bad influence on men by encouraging them to do as they do and to turn away from Yahweh.
akhenathon and nefertiti
These two names, inseparable from the greatness of Egypt, fuel legends and received ideas. Discover them differently on civilizationsanciennes.org