Tuesday, January 2, 2024

Samson's wife: the worst wedding ever (Judges 14:1-15:8)

What we learn about women:
  • Women, as weaker members in the world's power structure, can become the horrible incarnation of the suffering which is the inherent result of evil.
  • We see an example of a woman faced with a choice between two bad options choose the worse one and suffer more than she might have otherwise.
  • Beauty is not an unmitigated good. Though we see it as offering a measure of power to women who possess it, it can also be a magnet that draws attention from even more powerful people who want to exploit.
What I'm wondering: (If you aren't familiar with these stories, read below first to make sense of the questions.)
  • Samson's wife appears to be a mere pawn in this story. Could she have used the little agency she had for a better outcome?
  • Is there an echo of this kind of conflict in the current horrific events in Palestine? What are the women who are "pawns" under the authority and power of the violent men of Gaza to do? 

It's time to talk about Samson and the women in his life. If you grew up in church, you probably encountered Samson as some sort of a strongman superhero in Sunday school. But the passages in the book of Judges that tell his story are not so fun and kid-friendly. These passages do have two interesting female characters that will contribute to our project. One is Samson's wife, though his marriage is of no significant length due to the chaos and tragedy that typify Judges. The other is his lover, also implicated in dark drama. Both women are crucial for moving his story forward. Neither knows God. But we are told repeatedly that in the context of the untrustworthy women and evil events that characterize Samson's life, God's Spirit is with him and helping him. This post will focus on Samson's wife, the next one on the notorious Delilah.

I have to confess that on first reading, the horror of everything that Samson is involved with makes me want to shut the book. These chapters recount mass killing, deceit upon deceit, animal cruelty, and burning alive to name a few. I'm sticking with it to try to keep to this task of putting together the whole biblical picture of women in the Bible without avoiding inconvenient parts. I read Matthew Henry's commentary to get some additional perspective, and I was surprised to see that though he acknowledged plainly the evil inherent in much of the action, he was not as squeamish as I felt about the totality of the story. He focused in on the fact that many of the people who are doing and receiving evil in the story are self-designated enemies of God. (Samson excluded.) Henry is able to look at Samson as a super hero fighting bad guys who deserve it. I think that context is important to keep in mind for those of us who are accustomed to a post-Christ way of seeing everyone in the world as a possible redeemed child of God. That was still true back in the days of the Judges. But this story focuses more on the deliverance of the people of God from those who do not chose to be redeemed than the redemption and turning of God's enemies into friends. Maybe it shouldn't be so surprising to see God's judgment on display in a book entitled, "Judges."

Samson chooses for his wife a Philistine babe who "looked good to him." His parents warn him about marrying outside of God's people but he does not take their advice. From Matthew Henry's point of view, everything that follows results from the ungodly character of the Philistines with whom he will keep company for the rest of his story. 

Samson's wife, we've already noted, was lovely enough to draw Samson's eye from afar. She is unlucky in the rest of her circumstances, and one has to wonder if she would have even seen the beauty that drew Samson to her as luck in the end. At her wedding, Samson challenges his male Philistine companions to answer a riddle, with 30 outfits of clothing on the line. They can't do it. They force his fiance to get the answer out of him and tell it to them, or else they threaten to burn her and her father in their home. And with that, we start to see the mood of these stories play out. 

Samson's poor fiance has been put into a terrible position. She must betray her new husband, or else face a threat of horrific violence from the thugs she grew up with. What would have happened if she had allied herself with her super-hero husband? We don't have that story. But one does feel pity for her when she approaches Samson "in tears" and asks him to reveal his answer if he really loves her. This is the first part of a pattern that repeats with the other woman in his life Delilah later. They are both described as nagging him until he gives in and tells the information his enemies need to get the better of him. Then they both promptly give that information to his enemies. 

After the riddle ends in this way, Samson flies off in a rage to collect 30 outfits from 30 people in Ashkelon, by killing them. The Spirit of the Lord enables him to do this. We are to see it as a feat which helps to deliver Israel from its oppressors. But it sure does ruin the wedding. Everyone leaves, Samson and his bride go home. Her father figures the marriage is off and gives his daughter in marriage to the best man. But later Samson comes back to make up with her, and wants to visit her in her bedroom. This is now impossible. Samson is furious, and the situation escalates through the burning of Philistine fields, the burning of Samson's bride and her father in their house as previously threatened, a great slaughter executed by Samson on the Philistines in response, and then Samson going to live alone in a cave. The Philistines will continue to try to capture him unsuccessfully until they get in league with a true femme fatale, Delilah.

Samson's first wife is a simple tragic character. She's a beautiful pawn who is taken advantage of by her people, and meets a terrible end. What can we learn from her? For one thing, she is an example of how the power structure within which women exist can be used for evil. Women find ourselves weaker physically and socially often in the world. When there is no love, respect, or protection offered to the weak by the strong, they often become a horribly vivid incarnation of suffering and oppression. This testifies loudly to the appalling evil that is done when the strong exploit and abuse the weak. We hate to see and hear of these kind of events. Those who perpetrate them are clearly exposed in their inhumanity and demand to be judged.  

Second, in the question of how this woman might have used her limited agency, there is a call to those who find themselves in positions of weakness to look at what power for good and for influence they still have. No human being is a completely passive recipient, unless this has been their choice. When we find ourselves in impossible circumstances, what can we do? With whom should we ally ourselves for security? When we look to thugs and bullies rather than God and his people, we take the side of evil which opposes God and will ultimately be overcome by him. It is vital for human beings, whatever their level of power amongst their peers, to ally ourselves with the ultimate power for good. God can be trusted to work for goodness in the end, regardless of the intermediate timeline. He can also be trusted to work against those who oppose him. 

This story could apply to women when we are pushed and pulled by conflicting obligations with potentially terrible consequences attending whatever choice we make, and we do not have the ability to ensure a good result through our own power. When we have these choices to make, it is vital to ally ourselves with God and his work even if it comes with a large social cost. Letting the loudest and most familiar voices dictate her behavior led to disaster for Samson's wife. If she had been able to see that God was at work in the life of her new husband and taken his side instead of her old community, her story might have ended differently, and God's wrath might not have been poured out on so many others. That's the simpler way to look at this story. The other angle which could be taken is to throw up our hands and weep at the tragedy that was so typical of the time of the Judges, where there was so much violence and immorality and "Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes."

Thursday, August 17, 2023

Manoah's wife hears it right (Judges 13:1-24)

What we learn about women:
  • God often communicates with women about their children directly, especially their conceptions and births. They are privileged to be the first to know about the lives of their children, sometimes directly from the mouths of angels. 
  • This kind of message is often personal, just for women, but sometimes God gives them the responsibility of sharing his messages with the men in their lives.
  • God is very concerned with the birth of new people and the effects they will bring in the world as well as the lives of their mothers and families.
What I'm wondering: (If you aren't familiar with these stories, read below first to make sense of the questions.)
  • Samson is called by God from before his birth to be holy and to rescue Israel. Why does God allow such chaos in the course of his life?
  • What does this relationship between Samson's parents mean for how women should explain to the skeptical men in their lives what God is calling them to do? 

Samson is a familiar biblical hero, at least in the sense of "hero" appropriate to the mythological mood of the book of Judges. But a part of his story you may be less familiar with is the visit to his parents from an angel of the Lord who announces he will be born. Samson's mother, the wife of Manoa, is another woman in a long line of biblical women who can't conceive until their prayers are answered by God in a specific message, and not infrequently in a personal visit! 

An angel visits Manoah's wife and explains to her that she will have a son who is to be dedicated to God as a Nazirite. Because of this, she must not have any alcohol or forbidden food, and her son's hair must never be cut. And the angel promises that this son will deliver Israel from the Philistines. 

It's a bit unwieldy to keep typing "Manoah's wife," but she's unnamed, even though she has the primary role in this story. This irony is part of an underlying comic mood throughout the episode related to the dynamic between Manoah and his wife, where He is continually trying to catch up with her in understanding of what is going on. I think it counts as another example of women in Judges being cast in an honored position, specifically in contrast with their corresponding men. 

After the angel's visit, Manoah's wife runs to tell her husband what has happened. His reaction is to politely ask God if he could please send the angel again to tell them how to raise the boy. He is clearly wanting to get some confirmation about this, maybe not fully trusting what his wife has said. To be fair, many of us might feel the same. 

God does send the angel again, but again, the angel comes to Manoah's wife when she is not with her husband. This is funny. God answers Manoah's prayer, but in a way that reiterates that his message is for Manoah's wife herself. She goes running off to get him to come see the angel as well this time. The angel waits.

Manoah feels the need to confirm, "Are you the man who talked to my wife?" "I am." replies the angel. Manoah then asks, "What is to be the rule that governs the boy's life and work?" And the angel replies, basically: what I just told your wife. I just love how the angel is patient with Manoah, but continually affirms that his wife has correctly received a genuine message.

Manoah's next move is to invite the angel to stay for a meal. It makes me think of Peter wanting to build shelters for Elijah and Moses at the transfiguration. Since you're here, can we all hang out?? The angel says he will not eat, but they can make an offering to the Lord. Manoah continues to try to direct the encounter, asking the angel's name. "It is beyond understanding." Manoah is not getting it. But he finally realizes who he's talking to and what is going on when the angel ascends in the flames that consume the offering they have prepared. At this point, we might say, he freaks out. "We are doomed to die! We have seen God!" Manoah's wife, still more in touch with the situation, says in a tone of voice I can hear across the ages, "If the Lord had meant to kill us, he would not have accepted a burnt offering and grain offering from our hands, nor shown us all these things or now told us this." 

And then, Samson is born. "And the Lord blessed him as he grew up." Samson's parents continue to figure into the story of his life. We hear more about them regarding his troubled first marriage, and you can tell he must have a fairly close relationship with them. The text makes several mentions of things happening to Samson and the fact that "he didn't tell his father or mother about it," as if this were unusual. 

I'll have more to say about Samson in another post, but I love the story of his mother's visits from the angel. I think it reflects a familiar pattern in the world where God interacts deeply and intimately with mothers, whose experience of this can be written off as unrelated to the world of men where the important things happen, and can too often be doubted until sanctioned by men. This story is told to a larger degree from the other side, the feminine perspective. In this instance, God was willing to offer the appearance of an angel to substantiate that perspective, and it feels satisfying. Though this doesn't always happen, to say the least, it does make me think of another situation where an angel first appeared to women to give them a very important message about the salvation of Israel and the world, and then substantiated it with follow-up angelic testimony to men. This happened at the resurrection of Christ.  

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Women and the pride of men: Abimelech, Jepthah, their mothers, a daughter, and a dangerous woman with a millstone (Judges 9-11)

In this post we will look at four female characters in the stories of two men: the judges Abimelech and Jephthah. Two women, their mothers, are on the far periphery of the action, and two others, a warrior and a daughter, are in minor supporting roles. But in interestingly parallel circumstances, they each affect the honor and pride of Abimelech and Jephthah deeply. We don't know much about the lives and experiences of these women themselves, (except for one), and we will have to look at them through the often male-focused biblical perspective. But for most of history it's been a man's world, and how women powerfully affect even a world that portrays them as side characters is an interesting thing to consider.

What we learn about women:
  • Who your mother is is very important.
  • Even when men look down on women, their pride and status is influenced by women in their lives. But true honor comes from their position in relation to God.
  • The ideal of submission for women can cause trouble for men who are sinning, since it can prevent women from working against men's bad plans. (But I'd add, this is a problem for men to worry about, it's not on women to be responsible for keeping men in line.)
  • Women are used by God to stop bad guys. He loves to use those who seem weak to overcome those who seem strong. 
What I'm wondering: (If you aren't familiar with these stories, read below first to make sense of the questions.)
  • What ever became of Jotham? 
  • What was Jephthah's relationship with God like? Why did God let him think he should sacrifice his daughter?
  • What did the yearly remembrance of Jephthah's daughters look like? How did Israel interpret the event in hindsight?

Jephthah's daughter and her friends in the hills (wallhere image)

Of  Mothers, Massacres, and Millstones

An important parallel situation sets both Abimelech's and Jephthah's lives in motion: they are both illegitimate sons. Their two mothers are not wives of their fathers but a concubine and a prostitute. Nothing is revealed about these mothers other than their lack of status. We can be sure the women figured largely in the lives of their little boys, as all mothers do, at least in the early years. But the fact of their social positions, or rather lack thereof, in the family also had large consequences for Abimelech and Jephthah when they grew to be young men. First we'll summarize Abimelech's story.

Abimelech was a son of the heroic Gideon, who also had seventy other sons by his many wives. His mother was a concubine from Shechem. His illegitimacy, though no fault of his own, is a strike against him in competition with his many brothers for power. His lineage is part Hebrew, part pagan, and he chooses sides with his pagan uncles in Shechem to get an edge in the power struggle against his brothers. His bad character is made obvious by the horrible plan to seize power he carries out with his uncles: a massacre of all of his half-brothers. If Abimelech is evil, Gideon's other sons come across more wimpy than righteous, allowing themselves to be slaughtered one by one "on one stone" by the bunch of "reckless troublemakers" from Abimelech's hometown who follow him since he is their relative. Only the youngest son of Gideon, Jotham, survives. He escapes and delivers a long speech condemning and cursing Abimelech for his massacre, but that's his last recorded action. Abimelech goes on to solidify his power in Shechem for the next three years. 

A sidenote: this story is related to our earlier discussion of the life of Dinah, the sister of the 12 sons of Israel. This Shechem seems to be the same city of the ill-fated Shechem in Dinah's story, and now the town is named after him.  I found it interesting that here in Judges a man from Shechem commits an unjust massacre on Israelite leaders, after the prince of Israel has an illegimate relationship with a woman from there (who seems to be at least connected with a bunch of brothers who hold power there). It is not an exact reversal of Dinah and Shechem's story, but it does make you think of it, right? 

Eventually, Abimelech's rule is challenged, not by Jotham, but by the citizens of Shechem, who organize under one Gaal of Ebed. Abimelech cruelly crushes the rebellion, leveling the town, scattering salt on the ground, and burning the temple of Baal where the surviving citizens had taken refuge, with them trapped inside. Apparently on a tear, he continues to capture another town, Thebez, and is about to burn the tower there where the people are hiding, when another woman briefly but powerfully enters the action. She is another war hero, who drops a millstone on Abimelech, crushing his skull as he tries to set fire to the entrance. Millstones are heavy, no? The Israelite women in this period appear to have been extremely tough!! Abimelech is embarrassed that a woman will have (nearly) done him in, and he recruits his own armor bearer to finish the job so that no one can say a woman has killed him. With his death, his men disband and go home. The story ends commenting that Jotham's judgement and curse on Abimelech and the people of Shechem has been fulfilled by the events. 

Pride and Shame Delivered by Women

Though we've talked about women's generally low status in terms of political, community, and family power, we haven't considered much how the status of women affected the prestige of the men in their lives. For Abimelech, the fact that his mother was not a wife of Gideon was a problem for him. Her lack of status transferred to him, distinguishing him negatively from his father's other sons. This same pattern will affect Jephthah, whose story we will discuss next. 

These initial circumstances of parentage set Jephthah and Abimelech's lives off on contrasting courses. What might have happened if they had been born to wives of their fathers? Both might have risen to leadership through their military skills without the baggage of illegitimacy. This would be even more likely the case if their fathers had followed the good and highly practical pattern of monogamy instead of taking many wives and winding up with 70 sons vying for power. In that respect not only their mothers' "purity" but their fathers' caused them trouble. The difference between the purity of mothers and fathers is that fathers tend not to suffer in honor for their impurity, where as mothers bear impurity as shame. The mother's shame, rather than the father's honor, is then passed on to the children of the impure mother and father. Marriage, and monogamy, are a strong protection for both women and their children against the consequences of dishonor. 

Would it be better to just disregard the honor/dishonor piece completely here to level the playing field for families where women who are not married to the fathers of their children? No. Part of the reason the honor and dishonor come about is that women and their children need the protection and support of fathers. When a woman does not have this, she and her children are clearly vulnerable, and will be more likely to suffer from poverty and danger: inherently not circumstances to be praised or sought after in a person's life. A man who is impure will not reap these automatic physical consequences, so his honor is less likely to be compromised by his impurity. But the important thing is that if he is constantly inflicting bad circumstances on women and children, he is guilty of doing what is wrong, whatever his outwardly observable life circumstances are. 

The above really pertains more to Abimelech's father. But now to the affected son, Abimelech himself. The woman with the millstone brings up a different consideration of how how prestige and pride are related to relationships between women and men. Abimelech thought death would be more palatable if not served by a woman's hand. He seems to have felt that women couldn't be counted as strong warriors, and it would make him look weak to have been defeated by one. Notice that a question of pride is foremost in Abimelech's last thoughts! The text interprets the warrior's death as inflicted by God as judgment. But Abimelech in his misdirected pride, is more concerned that his death has been inflicted by a woman. When he shortly meets the Greatest and Strongest Warrior, the Lord of Heaven's Armies who has directed her, his focus will change. Despite the general pattern of power dynamics between male and female human beings, the most important thing to remember is who is in charge of it all. He makes the weak strong and the strong weak. 

A vow, a victory, a virgin

After Abimelech Israel has two more judges, with not very exciting stories, before we meet Jephthah. He is first and foremost introduced as a great warrior. His mother is a prostitute. His father is "Gilead" who I can't identify in the text. (There is a lot of talk about the land or region or towns or people of Gilead, but I don't see a person named Gilead, so I'm not sure whether he is a judge or what.) Jephthah and Abimelech are both disadvantaged by their illegitimacy. But unlike Abimelech, who snuck off to scheme against his legitimate half-brothers, Jephthah is driven away by his half-brothers to keep him from getting any inheritance from his father "for you are the son of a prostitute." Like Abimelech, after departing from his father's household, Jephthah soon has "a band of worthless rebels following him." But, again in contrast to Abimelech, Jephthah is called back to Gilead to help fight off the Ammonites who are causing the region of Gilead much trouble. If he will deliver the Israelites, the leaders of Gilead promise to make him their king. 

Do you see the pointed similarities and differences between him and Abimelech? Abimelech sneaks off to usurp power over his legitimate brothers, kills them, and is ultimately cursed to fail and lose power. Jephthah is run off by his legitimate brothers who want his power for themselves, then is called back to deliver them, and be made their ruler. The final contrasting parallel in the lives of Abimelech and Jephthah can be drawn between the roles of the only two women mentioned in their lives (other than their mothers). Abimelech's near military victory is crushed by the woman with the millstone who kills him; Jephthah's military victory in hand is turned sour, and he himself is "destroyed," by a woman he feels compelled to kill--his own daughter. 

After Jephthah agrees to lead the Israelites in battle against the Ammonite king, the Spirit of God comes upon him, enabling him to gather an army for the fight. At this time, he makes a vow to the Lord that really seems like it is provoking fate, or God. "If you give me victory over the Ammonites, I will give to the Lord whatever comes out of my house to meet me when I return in triumph, I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering." So. What kinds of things might come out of a house to greet a person? Goats or other animals which would make good offerings? Food? Money? Probably more likely people. You have to wonder what he was thinking. When God does give him victory and he returns home, unsurprisingly but devastatingly, his only child, his daughter, comes out to greet him. 

Another sidenote: the whole book of Judges reminds me so much of Greek mythology, with mischievous heroes winning great battles and then being ruined by their own character failings. It's of course distinctly different in that the true God is ever-present as a judge and helper in these events. But the story of Jephthah and his daughter feels the very Greekest of them all to me. 

What is happening in this tragic moment where Jephthah becomes apparently obligated to sacrifice his daughter? Initially, God had come upon Jephthah to help him. At that time, Jephthah made a vow, offering in some sense to pay God back for a victory. Was that the wrong turn? What is God's part in all this? God was using Jephthah for his purpose and was even dwelling in him. (Or on him. Is that an important difference?) God certainly allowed Jephthah's daughter to come out of his house. What did he want Jephthah to do then? Jephthah felt bound to carry out his vow: "I cannot take it back." Surely this was the wrong decision. But Judges does not comment other than to report the tragedy. If he had asked me for advice, I would have encouraged him to repent of his foolish vow and offer himself as a living sacrifice, or dying one, in battle for the Lord, in her stead. But alas we weren't able to discuss.

Jephthah's daughter is a direct opposite of the warrior woman with the millstone who brought shame on Abimelech. She is as gentle and submissive as a lamb in her reaction. She encourages her father to fulfill his vow. She only wants to go roam the hills and weep with her friends for two months because she will die a virgin with no children. This is so dramatically heartbreaking and horrifying. It became such an affecting event in Israel that the text says every year thereafter the young Israelite women would go away to for four days to lament her fate. 

It is a distinctly feminine tragedy for a few reasons. First of all, it involves the loss of a child, and a girl. The Father is the main mourner, but this parent-child love has a huge relationship to child-bearing in general, a women's domain first. Second, the trusting and submissive response of Jephthah's daughter is definitely the ideal feminine attitude, almost to the point of caricature though. You want to tell them both, "Wait!!! Let's think this through a bit! Maybe the vow itself was wrong!" Third, the main thing that brings sadness to Jephthah's daughter and her friends is that she will not be able to become a wife and, especially, mother. Fourth, it is the young women of Israel who remember and lament her death each year. 

Jephthah is recorded as fulfilling his vow, and then his military career continues. This time he is involved in a civil war with men from Ephraim who are angry he didn't invite them to fight the Ammonites. Though he is successful in this conflict as well, he dies after six years of judging Israel, or less than six years after killing his daughter. 

Women and Men and Pride and Falls

Very different women in the stories of Jephthah and Abimelech, in both typical and atypical feminine roles, wound up "destroying" great warriors. Abimelech was in an obvious position of guilt demanding judgment meted out, shamefully in his eyes, by a woman. This fits the pattern of Judges where women, surprisingly to the audience, are used by God to accomplish his work in situations where men are failing. Jephthah's moral situation is not so clear. He has been used mightily by God to deliver God's people and seems to be thankful to God, however rash his expression of gratitude. When Jephthah first realizes what his vow entails, he exclaims to his daughter, "You have completely destroyed me! You've brought disaster on me!" How are we to understand his guilt and his "destruction" in terms of his daughter's sacrifice? I think his willingness to make the vow and to carry it our are both expressions of his pride. Having a submissive daughter in this case would in some sense seem to help his honor, as in his own assessment he is able to carry out his word, and even possibly pay God back, so as not to be indebted to him? But this pride, supported by a textbook submissive daughter, also winds up destroying him. Abimelech is destroyed in the shame of being killed by only a woman. Jephthah is destroyed preserving his honor at the expense of the life of a woman. 

But what makes this all make more sense is keeping in mind the difference between how God and people allocate honor and shame. From the human perspective, men do not lose much honor for impurity. From God's perspective, they are guilty and bear dishonor for doing wrong. The order built into the universe where the strong must help the weak, and the weak are blessed by trusting God for help, sets a complicated system in place. Women are inherently vulnerable, subject to human dishonor. But we are blessed by God as our need for him is more obvious. We are at times used mightily by him to crush powerful bad guys with millstones and tent pegs when they least suspect it. At other times, like Jephthah's daughter, we bear the suffering men inflict, trusting God's ultimate justice. Men are less likely to suffer from dishonor and more likely to be driven to destruction by pride and inability to obey and rely on God. Our circumstances are our circumstances, but our ultimate destiny regardless depends on our willingness to offer ourselves to God for his help and his power to do what he asks.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Women of War: Deborah and Jael (Judges 1-5)

Low Angle Photo of Coconut Trees

Welcome to Judges!

Today, we begin looking at the book of Judges. Other than the story of Rahab, which we covered last time, there were only 2 more places in Joshua, our last book, where women are even mentioned, and both of those stories are also found in other books. One, the story of Zelophehad's daughters, we dealt with already when we were reading the Law. The other is here in Judges, and we'll look at it briefly in this post because it's pretty short and somewhat inscrutable. It's the story of how Othniel, the first judge of Israel found his wife. But the main part of this post will look at the lives of Deborah and Jael, such a treat for our study of women in the Bible! Deborah is always held up as an example of a biblical woman in a non-traditional role, so I am really looking forward to examining her story! Bound up with it is one that's perhaps even more fascinating, the story of Jael of the mighty tent-peg, who you may not have heard of unless you read your Bible quite diligently. 

One opening observation about the book of Judges: I said above that Joshua hardly speaks of women at all. They aren't even listed as existing in towns where wars are taking place, it is only Joshua and his men against the Canaanite men. But Judges is just full of female characters in roles large and small, tragic, and heroic. We are going to enjoy this book. 

What we learn about women

  • In the three stories in this post, women are contrasted with men whom they outshine.

  • Deborah was a prophet and a judge, but saw Barak's request for her accompanying presence in battle as detracting from his own military glory.

  • Jael is honored for her decisive action in luring Sisera into her tent and then killing him.

  • Deborah's song provides commentary that honors God for his action in giving victory to his people when they are a weaker military force. It also gives a strongly female perspective on the death of Sisera and the effect it has on his people.

What I'm wondering

  • Is Deborah an example for all women to aspire to this kind of leadership? What do we make of her rebuke to Barak?

  • What is Jael's back story? The text refers to "The days of Jael." It also says her family was allied with King Jabin, but she acts purposefully to kill Sisera, his commander.

  • What was going on in Barak's mind through the story? We know as little about him and his thoughts as we often know about women in the male-dominated stories we've looked at.

Acsah and Othniel and the wedding gift

Let's begin with our first woman in the book of Judges, Acsah. She is the daughter of Caleb, who offers her hand in marriage to the person who captures the town of Kiriath-Sepher. Othniel, Caleb's nephew, is the one to achieve this and they get married. At the marriage, the text gives us this strange detail, all the information we really have about their marriage. "When Acsah married Othniel, she urged him [or he urged her] to ask her father for a field. As she got down off her donkey, Caleb asked her, 'what's the matter?' She said, 'Let me have another gift. You have already given me land in the Negev; now please give me springs of water, too.' So Caleb gave her the upper and lower springs." 

This story is short but intriguing. So many questions: who was urging who to ask Caleb (translators can't tell whether Othniel urged her to ask for this gift or the reverse)? why are we told she was getting off her donkey? did they want a field or springs? I think we can at least guess that it was Acsah who wanted the springs. If Othniel wanted the field, Acsah could have changed the plan and asked for springs. If she wanted the field she probably wouldn't have then asked for springs instead. Right? The other place where this story is recorded word for word is in Joshua in the part where land distributions are recorded. So one guess is that it is there just to point out that those springs do in fact belong to Othniel's family. (Which is also Acsah's family anyway. . . ?) But is it also a foreshadowing of the way women frequently enter the narrative in Judges almost to shame men who are not doing what they ought to do. Here, the story introduces Othniel who will be the first Judge of Israel. If Othniel wanted the field, maybe he should have asked for it himself, and perhaps he would have gotten it instead of the springs? Maybe that's reading too much into it, but it loosely fits a pattern we'll keep seeing.

Continuing on in Judges, chapter 3 tells us that the Israelites have fallen completely into idolatry and intermarriage with foreigners. Because of God's anger over this, they have been "turned over" to King Cushan-rishathaim of Aram. They cry out to the Lord who raises Othniel up to bring about military victory over Aram for Israel, which leads to peace in the land for 40 years. Othniel is followed by Ehud, the assassin who kills the obese King Eglon. It's quite a colorful story complete with toilet humor and graphic descriptions of Eglon's large body. Ehud is succeeded by Shamgar, who is described with only one sentence, "He once killed 600 Philistines with an ox goad." What a legacy! But his story is almost skipped over--next, Deborah's story begins by saying that after Ehud's death (which was before Shamgar's time) "the Israelites again did evil in the Lord's sight." Because of this evil, God allowed them to be oppressed by King Jabin, and his fearsome army commander Sisera.

God's victory at the hands of Deborah and Jael

Verse 4 of chapter 4 introduces Deborah as the wife of Lappidoth, and as the prophet who was judging Israel at the time. She would hold court under the "Palm of Deborah" (what a fun visual) and people would come to see her for judgment. But as this story opens, Deborah actually is the one seeking out Barak from Naphtali with a message from the Lord. 

God's message for Barak is a command and a promise. He must call his 10,000 warriors from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun, and confront Sisera's army. God promises to give him victory in the battle. Barak's response to this commission is a little odd, "I will go, but only if you go with me." This army commander seems to want hand-holding from Deborah the prophet. What does he hope she will do? Is he looking for her to commit to her message and put her own life on the line? Deborah agrees to go with him but declares, "you will receive no honor in this venture, for the Lord's victory will be at the hands of a woman." This makes it sound like she will actually be leading the troops, but the text says that Barak calls the troops and leads the attack. Somehow Deborah's presence and moral support is enough to compromise his glory. This is an obvious episode of women in Judges serving to point out the failings of men.

Deborah, though, is fully confident and prophetic as she accompanies Barak and inspires him to lead the troops to victory. In accordance with her message from God, Sisera's army is thrown into complete confusion and panic during the attack, and they all flee. Sisera escapes on foot. The rest of the army is chased and slaughtered by Barak and his troops. Enter our second female heroine, who's story is even more intense than Deborah's and whose confidence is nearly equal.

White and Brown Lighted Cabin Tent at Woods

Jael is related to Moses's father-in-law Jethro. Jethro's family is settled among the Israelites in the promised land, not far from the Kishon river where this battle takes place. After Sisera escapes the battle he runs straight to Jael's tent because her husband is on friendly terms with King Jabin. However, Jael's part in the story throws that detail into doubt. Jael welcomes Sisera into her tent, even telling him, "don't be afraid." She gives him milk and settles him comfortably to rest with a blanket. As I summarize it here, it strikes me as a lot of motherly imagery. But it's leading up to quite a twist. When he is asleep, Jael creeps up to him with a hammer and a tent peg, and hammers the peg right through his temple! This is a more familiar role than Deborah's for a woman, inside the tent, providing food and comfort. But her action is maybe even less what you might expect from a woman. Can you imagine the chutzpah necessary to plan and execute this killing by hammer and tent peg? I feel like even just using a hammer would be less intense. Phew!

Next, Barak arrives at Jael's tent in search of Sisera. Again he has lost his chance for battle glory to a woman. Jael says, "Come, and I will show you the man you are looking for." She has the situation under control, and Barak is a day late and a dollar short. Though I'm sure she was glad to have Sisera removed from her tent! 

Deborah's Song

This military victory is decisive, leading to Israel's eventual destruction of King Jabin's rule. We can find some more hints on how to process the great contributions of women to this conflict in Deborah's song, which runs the length of Chapter 5. Judges is full of long speeches and dialogue, but this is maybe the most spectacular example in the book. 

There are several things about Deborah's song that I want to point out. First of all, it gives us a window into Deborah's thoughts about this battle. She is completely focused on the Lord and his victory. She does point out her role, alongside Barak, as being used by God. She praises Barak for leading the troops, but is proud of her own actions as well. She describes how Israel was languishing under King Jabin and Sisera. "In the days of Shamgar son of Anath, and in the days of Jael, people avoided the main roads, and travelers stayed on winding pathways. There were few people left in the villages of Israel-- until Deborah arose as a mother for Israel." This passage is so interesting for a few reasons. First of all it mentions Shamgar, who as we said above is rather skipped over in the storyline of judges. It also talks in what seems to be a parallel construction about "the days of Jael." What does that mean?? Jael was not a judge. Is this implying she had some military power or prowess even before she killed Sisera? We've got to leave that one there. But what warms my heart is that Deborah sees herself as a mother for Israel. She is clearly in a high position with many roles: judge, prophet, you could even say general. But she sees her overall role as mothering her nation. And she sees mothering as delivering messages for God, serving as moral support in military action, and composing epic poetry. 

As her song continues, she praises bravery of those who volunteered and went out to war, marching as "the few" against "the mighty." Again and again she emphasizes that God is the one who delivered Israel in this battle. She even uses cosmic imagery, the stars were fighting against Sisera and the river swept his army away. She also casts blame on the people of Israel who did not come to help. 

The last eight verses of her 31-verse song are about the killing of Sisera by Jael. Deborah has high praise for her sister in arms. "Most blessed among women is Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite. May she be blessed above all women who live in tents." If you have any kind of Catholic background, you'll notice that the first part of that blessing is remarkably close to a line from the Hail Mary prayer, which comes from the angel's visitation to Mary, "Blessed are you among women." This is clearly not referring to that, being long before it in time. And I doubt the angel had this on his mind when he was greeting Mary. But it makes for quite a contrast in our minds!

The next part of the song is a poetic retelling of the events in Jael's tent. It ends with the somewhat lost in translation verse, "He sank, he fell, he lay still at her feet. And where he sank, there he died." I've always thought it was kind of redundant to the point of being silly. But if you think of him first sinking in exhaustion, falling asleep, and then laying still, and while laying still, then dying, it makes more sense.

The last part of Deborah's song is so interesting. It gives a brilliantly female perspective that is rare in the Bible. Deborah paints a picture of Sisera's mother looking out the window waiting for her son to come home from battle, wondering why he hasn't arrived. Boy is this waiting for men to come home common in the world of women! She speaks with her wise women about her concerns and they reassure her that he must be dividing the plunder. They hope for "a woman or two for every man"--yikes!, and also, completely understandably "colorful robes for Sisera and embroidered robes for me." "Yes," she muses, "the plunder will include colorful robes embroidered on both sides." 

These details are so illustrative to me about the way the world of the Bible was so different and so similar to our own, especially for women. How can we possibly understand hoping for two captive women for each man in our community? How can we deny our full understanding of waiting for a son to come home from danger and trying to distract ourselves from worry by thinking about awesome clothes (ahem, retail therapy)? And the way we turn over a problem with our wise women and repeat their words of encouragement back to ourselves? Is this Deborah's genuine female take on the world coming through over thousands of years? Or a historically based song put in her mouth by an inspired author? Whoever wrote it was at least making a reasonable attempt to think from a woman's perspective. If you are thinking I have been hugely stereotyping what the female perspective is in this paragraph, that's true. But the point is that something this stereotypically female has rarely made its way into the Bible at all in our reading up to this point, even as a stereotype. The author of judges really saw women having a place in the action.

There is no resolution to the vivid dramatic irony in which Sisera's mother waits. In the next verse, the song finishes beautifully, "Lord, may all your enemies die like Sisera, but may all those who live you rise like the sun in all its power!" Then the story of Deborah, Barak, Jael and Sisera ends. "Then there was peace in the land for 40 years." Just like after Othniel's life.

So, does Deborah prove anything about women's roles and identity?

What can we file away for our main project of hunting for God's thoughts about women in the Bible from this often referenced important story of Deborah the Judge (and Jael the Warrior!)? In case you somehow missed my interpretive assumptions for all of this, I do think God has different callings for men and women based on our biology that lead to real outworkings in our vocations. You probably didn't miss that. ; ) So what I say here will reflect that. 

God certainly gave evidence of using Deborah to deliver his messages of prophecy and judgement. This is not such a new thing for biblical women--we have already learned that Miriam was called "the prophet" and held a leadership role alongside Moses and Aaron until her harsh rebuke from God. But Judges is so often frank about what is happening in Israel, recording even really evil deeds with no moral commentary other than, "In those days Israel had no king and everyone did as they saw fit." So we can't automatically say everything the main characters do should set an example. But that sentence doesn't appear in this story, where the main point is God's deliverance of Israel, using even women to accomplish this. The tone feels less like, "should women be allowed to lead?" and more like "wow, God can even work through women when he wants to!" It's unexpected and amazing. But the expectation for Barak was that he should have done this without so much help from Deborah, and later from Jael. A pattern is being broken, and it doesn't look good on Barak.

Specifically because of Deborah's message to Barak, delivered in the same tone of voice as her other messages from God for him, that he is missing out on glory intended for him when she joins him in battle, I don't think we'd be justified in saying, "See? God doesn't care if men or women are the leaders." But, I think we would be right to focus on God's action and the importance of joining his plan without focusing on particularly who must practically lead in specific circumstances. Deborah is happy to jump in in an unexpected role, that ultimately does support Barak as the military leader, and she is proud of what God has done through her. But she is really the most proud of God, not herself as an empowered female. Does Deborah's story serve as an example for women to try to level the playing field or get authority over men in leadership? No. This was not Deborah's goal--it would be more self-serving than God-serving for any of his followers to be primarily concerned with their own status. Does it give us encouragement to follow God wherever he leads when our leaders are failing us? Yes. But instead of focusing on which people get to be leaders, with Deborah and Barak we should be rejoicing over what our true overarching Leader has accomplished. 


Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Rahab's Rescue (Joshua 2-6)

Well, our little project now emerges from the wilderness of understanding the Law, along with the Israelites, who at the beginning of the book of Joshua are ready to enter the promised land. This momentous event has a woman in a key supporting role in it's narrative. Rahab the harlot (prostitute, sex worker, what should we call her politely??) is an extremely interesting and important character. When you think of Rahab, you probably do immediately think of her profession. But what surprised me as I read through her story carefully again is how very little her work affects the action of the story. Her contribution to the narrative would be basically unchanged if she were Rahab the weaver--though she would need an excuse to have spies staying in her house, so perhaps Rahab, the innkeeper's wife? This component of who she could trip us up, and frankly I'm not sure what it communicates about prostitution that this was Rahab's job. Surely no one wants to hold harlotry up as an exemplary field, even if we want to fully support and encourage the women who have gotten wrapped up in it. But there is no comment on prostitution at allll in Rahab's story, either on the vendor or on the spies who seem to have been purchasers. Though we will talk about it a little as we read, I think it's not really the point. What is the point? Let's dive in.

What we learn about women:
  • Rahab is a prostitute, but this part of her life is not discussed. She is lauded for her faith and the help she gave Israel's spies instead.
  • Rahab is the one who initiates the deception of the king of Jericho. She hides them and lies for them before telling them why.

What I'm wondering:
  • Why is the morality of prostitution not mentioned at all?
  • Did Rahab see this as her own rescue by God?
  • Is she for sure the Rahab who married into David's line and became his great great grandmother?
  • Who was in her household? Was she truly a prostitute living with her father, mother, sisters, brothers, and their families?

Spies in a safe house
We meet Rahab when Joshua's spies arrive to scout out Jericho, and come to her house to stay the night. This is a little jarring, I think. The previous chapter ends with Joshua encouraging the Israelites to love and obey God in the promised land, and their response of encouragement to him that they will do it! Hurray! Then the spies are commissioned in the first verse of chapter two and in the next, the "set out and came to the house of Rahab a prostitute, and stayed there for the night." Why did these men go straight to a brothel on their mission to scout the land?? Is it the thing where ancient hotels were actually just part and parcel with places of prostitution? I feel like I have heard that. But still, if you could stay there with or without the sexual services why were they emphasized, rather than the lodging, in the name of the place? This, as I mentioned above, passes in the text with no comment. I only bring it up to point out that if we are tempted to see Rahab as particularly sinful for her line of work, we should remember that it takes two to tango and the spies seem to be just as guilty.

With this more or less important detail touched on, we turn to the main part of the story. Rahab takes over as the protagonist for the rest of this episode. The king of Jericho finds out that the spies have come and that they have gone to Rahab's house. (The text says "someone" told him. Who? How did they know?) If we were thinking that the spies offered Rahab a chance to escape the destruction of her city if only she would help them, we were wrong. I love that helping the spies and even reaching out to them at all is entirely her idea.  The spies are merely visiting her house, and she proactively shields them, hides them, and lies for them, acting treasonously against the military interests of her own people, before she even speaks with them about why she is doing this. She approaches the spies already knowing that "the Lord has given you this land," that he has acted mightily against Egypt and the surrounding kings, and that "the Lord your God is the supreme God of the heavens above and the earth below." The spies likely had no idea who they were staying with, but Rahab was not in the same position.

Plot twist?
If Rahab knew all those things, isn't it interesting to think of what must have been going on in her mind and her spiritual life before the spies came? She reports that everyone is afraid of the Israelites and their God, and she is so convinced of his power that she is ready to act dangerously to align herself with his cause before she even has the chance to do so. I had previously thought that God was acting providentially in having the spies happen to end up in a house in Jericho where they would be safe despite their cover being blown. But could it be that God knew Rahab belonged to him, and actually sent the spies to her to rescue her rather than the other way around? The more I think about it, the more I feel like this must actually at least been part of his purpose. If what she says about her fear of God was true, can you imagine how relieved Rahab must have been to have the opportunity to join his side when the spies arrived?

I do have this one other question though. Could Rahab have been more crafty than it looks like at first glance? She would have been in a position to have "someone" tell the king that spies were in her house, then to lie and say that they left. Then, with the spies still dependent on her, she could have offered them her request with more on the line for them if they would refuse than if she had just approached them before they were discovered. Still, we could chalk this behavior up to true fear of the Lord. And her risk in committing treason to align herself with him was still the same. The difference would be a little more proactivity in assuring that the spies would hear her out and agree not to harm her. God gave her the opportunity either way.

When Rahab asks the spies to spare her life and the lives of her family, she does still have the option to betray them. This is mentioned by the spies when they depart and say they will not be bound by their oath to spare her if she would do so. But she instructs them well on how to hide for three days in the hill country. Then she helps them climb out her window, which is in the town wall, so they can escape the city. It seems like they may actually climb down on the scarlet rope that will mark her house according to their agreement, and she leaves it hanging there. Was it risky for her to have a scarlet rope hanging out of her window when she has just lied about not having the spies at her house? Like a bedsheet rope hanging from a prison window?? There is a lot of intrigue in this story!

Rahab's Rescue
After they make it for the three days hiding in the wilderness, the spies return home with the report, which must have come from the intel they gathered from Rahab, that God has given them the land and the people are all terrified of them. Joshua and the Israelites then spend the next couple of chapters solemnly and symbolically crossing the Jordan river and completing the circumcision of all the male population. They also celebrate the first passover in the promised land, and at that point manna stops being delivered because the Israelites will now eat "from the crops of Canaan."After Joshua receives a visit from the mysterious "commander of the Lord of heaven's armies" proclaiming that he is on holy ground, the campaign to take over the promised land begins, and the remarkable first conquest of Jericho takes place.

The feel of the conquest is not pride in military achievement, rather confident worship of God, who parts the Jordan so the Israelites can walk through, instructs Joshua to circumcise the men and celebrate the Passover, sends his angel to let Joshua know of his presence, and gives a very spiritual and supernatural method of attacking the city. Again and again we hear the same report Rahab gave, that the Canaanites are terrified of God and his people.

Before the walls of Jericho fall on the seventh day, Joshua reminds the soldiers not to harm Rahab or her family, "for she protected our spies." And after the city has fallen, he sends the same spies who stayed with her to go and rescue her. Then she and her family are moved to a safe place near Israel's camp. The last thing we hear about her in Joshua is that "she lives among the Israelites to this day." So at some point it seems that she must have moved from near the camp to among the Israelites. It seems clear that the Israelites took seriously her actions and her faith, and were committed to ensuring that she be repaid for her deeds and be protected as promised.

Later on in the Bible we hear about Rahab again in several places. Confusingly to me in my current level of understanding, "Rahab" is a name for Egypt in Isaiah, and Psalm 89, but I'm not sure it has anything to do with Rahab of Jericho. Where our Rahab is specifically mentioned is in Hebrews as an example of living "by faith" and, ironically, in James, as an example of being "justified by works." The faith/works puzzle is definitely outside our scope for today, but interesting huh? Also, the gospel of Matthew's genealogy says that a Rahab was married to Salmon, the father of Boaz who marries Ruth. If this was our Rahab, she is the great great grandmother of King David! It's is not really explicit that Salmon's wife is Rahab of Jericho, but the timing is workable, and I think people generally take this to be the same Rahab. So fascinating that King David 's grandfather Obed, son of half-Canaanite Boaz and Moabite Ruth, may have been 3/4 Canaanite. It would go to show that being a member of Israel has always been a matter of the heart over heredity.

To wrap up, I think we can celebrate God's rescue of a woman, not even a model ideal woman, not even an Israelite woman, who had real faith in him demonstrated through her action which showed more fear of Him than of the local power she was under. Following her example, wherever we find ourselves in status or culture, we can look for opportunities to start joining God's cause and getting on his side. And we have evidence here that helps us trust that he will provide those opportunities if we are watching for them. The result for Rahab was both her own safe escape from Jericho, and having a part in God's great work in bringing his people into their promised land.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

The Law on women in public life: from skillful spinners to social activists

When women are specifically mentioned in the Law, it is often in reference to their status as wives or mothers. Even now this family role is a crucial and often defining feature of women's lives, and it would have been even more so in ancient times. But there are a few places in the Torah where women are mentioned apart from their family lives and in a larger community context. In this post we will look at those passages. They deal with things like skilled work, economic provision for widows, inheritance and legal action, and the effects of the patriarchal structure on obligations for vows women made.

What we learn about women:
  • One part of the "women's work" in ancient Israel was spinning thread, which they were called on to do for the construction of the tabernacle.
  • Widows are provided for under gleaning laws, and protected from exploitation in some sense as their cloaks may not be taken for a pledge.
  • Zelophehad's daughters changed legal precedent that discriminated against women even within a patriarchal society when they brought their case before the assembly.
  • Israel's patriarchal structure had implications for whether women would be held accountable for vows they made to the Lord. If husbands or fathers objected to these, women were not required to fulfill them.
What I'm wondering:
  • There are a few mentions of widows being under separate laws than other women. What was a widow's life like? Maybe Ruth will provide that insight later on.
  • Given the story of Zelophehad's daughters, was it uncommon for women in Israel to act in the legal sphere? 
  • What is the deal with Asher's daughter Serah??
  • How large a part of women's lives and family lives were vows to the Lord? There is a whole chapter devoted to this. 

Threads in the Tapestry

The first place in the Torah where women are mentioned in community roles is Exodus 35 where women who are skilled spinners spun the thread necessary to build the tabernacle. This is one neat peak into the specific work women must have done in Israelite society. In the passage all people, "men and women" mentioned explicitly, are invited to bring jewelry and other fine materials for the construction of the tabernacle. But then "skilled women" are particularly noted as the ones who will spin, and then "bring what she had spun--blue, purple or scarlet yarn or fine linen. And all the women who were willing and had the skill spun goat hair." Later on master craftsmen are appointed to lead all those who are skilled and can make things for the temple in metalworking, weaving and embroidering, and construction. The only craft women are specifically mentioned as performing is spinning. It makes me think of the line from Cinderella where the female mice sing to the male ones, "Leave the sewing to the women! Now you go get some trimmin'!" Women nowadays are more likely to be the stereotypically crafty ones. It was different in ancient Israel, but they still had their gender-conscripted skills. 

Taking this to a more poetic level, isn't it lovely that the first level of construction of all of the fabric for the tent of the Tabernacle was formed by the hands of women? It's parallel to the way the outer world of human civilization is built upon the first level work of women to bring human beings into the world. This fundamental work is the basis for civilization, which could not exist without it. It brings to the mind the image that each of us are "just threads in the tapestry."

In a separate but also fabric-related topic, a quick note that in a few words the law forbids men from dressing like women or women from dressing like men in Deuteronomy chapter 22:5. What a long discussion we could get into over that topic. But I think I will leave it there for now--the law is concise, let me be as well. 

We can also relate a third sub-topic to fabric! In chapter 24 of Deuteronomy in the midst of many rules about being sure to show mercy to vulnerable people in various situations, instructions are given that a widow's cloak must not be taken as a pledge. 

In the section immediately following that (alas no common thread here), we read about about gleaning, which is another provision for widows that will become an important topic in the life of a really well-documented biblical woman who's story is coming up: Ruth. Gleaning is a harvesting practice. When Israelites harvested their crops, they were not to go back and pick up what had been left behind after the first pass through. That portion was to remain free for the widow, the fatherless and the alien to come and take. Though hopefully these people could have been incorporated into families in Israel, they were provided for just in case. 

After both the gleaning verses and the previous section about widows' cloaks, it is repeated, "Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this." How fascinating and illuminating: our not taking advantage of the vulnerable should flow from our remembrance that we who are more secure are not as self-sufficient as we pretend. We all care for the vulnerable, because we are all inherently vulnerable. Our power and our wealth are circumstantial. The Lord is the one who provides them.

Zelophehad's daughters

To introduce what I find to be the most interesting part of this post for our modern ways of thinking, we need to talk a bit about inheritance. I admit I have not studied this deeply, but I think my basic understanding is correct, that Israelite fathers passed property down to their sons. Daughters would bring dowries but not land to their marriages and they nearly became a part of their husband's possessions. This is not an uncommon set up in world history. If you read old testament genealogies you will notice that they almost exclusively feature males, following the patriarchal system--but only almost completely, which is a little odd. If they are only featuring males because that is how inheritance and tribal lines are traced why are there any daughters mentioned? In some, the women featured had important historical roles (like Ruth and Rahab who are mentioned in the one in Matthew), but it's not always the case. 

In Numbers there is a lot of talk about land, tribes, and inheritance, and there are two censuses taken. At the end of the book, in the second census, all the people listed are males with three exceptions. The first exception is the most strange to me and I have no explanation for it: Numbers 26:24 remarks, "Asher had a daughter named Serah." It clearly couldn't be true that that no other daughters were had in the other any of the other tribes descendants recorded. Scratching my head. Second, in the record of the Levite clan, we learn the name of Amram's wife, Jochebed, and their daughter . . . because she was Miriam!--sister to Moses. That one makes sense. But the most interesting exception is in 26:33. "Zelophehad son of Hepher had no sons; he had only daughters, whose names were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah." These ladies have a very cool story that obviously merits their entry into a genealogy that is based on male inheritence.

In Numbers 27, Zelophehad's daughters come to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting to present an issue to the leaders of Israel. Their father had no sons and so there will be no one to inherit the land he would have received. They ask, "Why should our father's name disappear from his clan because he had no son?" 

There are a couple of places I could quickly find in Numbers where people come to the entrance to the tent of meeting as a court, or government center. The daughters of Zelophehad are making an official petition here, to change a rule that is affecting their family in an unfair way. Given our current climate of righteous indignation over injustice from the privileged to the less so, I am tempted to see this as an episode of activism where these women are advocating for fairer circumstances in a system that has not considered their needs. But if we believe that "the Law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul" as in Psalm 19, what is going on here? Was there room for improvement in God's law? 

The way Moses responds to their request is so heartening. He brings their case before the Lord. And God responds, "What Zelophehad's daughters are saying is right. You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father's relatives, and turn their father's property over to them." This is cool. At the instigation of vulnerable petitioners, the Lord reveals more of his will about how to govern to the leaders he has chosen. God then reveals explicitly how property can be passed through families, including daughters. 

Now, to some this may seem like a pretty paltry step, not exactly full gender equality. But we've got to remember that society here was set up for women to be supported in families, in subordinate positions with regard to authority, but exalted with regard to purpose for their contribution to the project of human life on earth. But Zelophehad's daughters situation shows that even though these family and society structures were in place, it didn't mean that women, particularly daughters, were just disregarded. They were able to help carry on the family line, and preserve the family wealth, which seems to have been quite an important task in their world. In a way, when they brought their issue to Moses they even helped receive the Law--quite an honor. 

To me the story gives great encouragement for women to talk about injustice we face when trying our best to navigate life and help our families and communities prosper. This was not women demanding that they be recognized as tribal leaders, they wanted to continue their father's line. But when hitting roadblocks on this goal, they didn't just throw up their hands as victims. They went to court. And the male leaders in this instance did what those in authority should always do. Moses brought their case before the Lord and listened to his instructions. When he listened to the women and to the Lord, he learned much more about how to govern effectively and what God's will was. 

This fine line between justice and equality is where both feminism and sexism often lose their footings. Feminism is wrong to seek perfect uniform equality between men and women. We are different in bodies and in life's work--it's actually unjust to suggest otherwise. Sexism is of course wrong to say that women's concerns, being often removed from the male sphere of military and economic power, have no validity. Inequality and difference are concrete and cannot be wished away, but they are no excuse for injustice. 

Where would we find Zelophehad's daughters in our modern world? Probably not running for president. Nor languishing in despair over the fact that they will never be able to succeed in the NFL. More likely they might be advocating for tax breaks for mothers who are taking time out of professional careers to nurture small children, or for medical research into women's health issues? I'm not sure here, but it's always fascinating to think how these ancient issues touch our modern ones. 

It seems the decision over the inheritance of Zelophehad's daughters set a real legal precedent, because it is returned to in the last chapter of Numbers, in fact it closes out the book. This time, the heads of the clans related to Zelophehad come to the assembly concerned that when the women marry, their tribal land will become the property of men from other tribes. Moses also brings this case before the Lord, who answers, " What the tribe of the descendants of Joseph is saying is right." He goes on to explain that land must not pass from tribe to tribe among the Israelites, and that the women must marry within their father's tribal clan. Verse 10, "So the daughters of Zelophehad did as the Lord commanded Moses." 

Contingent vows

The whole of Numbers chapter 30 is about fulfilling vows made to the Lord, but only the first two verses deal with men making vows. The rest of the chapter is concerned with vows made by women and how they may be nullified by fathers or husbands. The first two verses say that a man is always bound by his vows and must keep them. But when a woman makes a vow, it is subject to her male authority figure giving his consent. If he doesn't allow her to fill it, she is not obligated to do so. Women who are widowed or divorced are bound by their vows in the same way men are. 

At first glance this strikes me as quite practical. The Lord ordains these authority structures. He then makes allowance for women to live within them without penalty. Could there be a situation in which a husband or father would truly be able to inhibit a woman's relationship with God? In a relationship with anyone else, this would be a fair question. But if we remember who God is, we know that he works within the circumstances which are always within his control. If a vow must be fulfilled, we could trust God to provide the way. If no way is made, the vow need not be fulfilled. Why is this so neat and explicit in this one set of circumstances where a male authority figure blocks a vow's fulfillment, versus inconvenience, natural disaster, illness or whatever other unavoidable circumstance might prevent it? That's hard to say. Maybe the issue was coming up often? 

From another angle, I think this passage is cool because it acknowledges that even "a young woman still living in her father's house" would be making vows or pledges to God. It implies that God expects to be in close relationship with women even within an authority structure where they are not in religious leadership. The patriarchy doesn't mean God thinks women unimportant, rather they are in certain roles which limit their independence, but not their spiritual life or their humanity. 


As we finish looking at what we find written about women in the Torah, particularly in these parts about women in the culture at large, to me there's a strong feeling that women are being talked about, and are not part of the discussion. This was true--women were not priests, scribes or teachers. So all these things we read are discussions between men about how to deal with women in the community. As a woman interacting with this material it can feel a bit like eavesdropping, not in the sense that we shouldn't be privy to this information, but that we are observers. This is just a mood I've noticed in the text, I haven't got a takeaway from it other than what we've already said before: that God must have been working in the lives of women offstage from what is written in the law, as we saw he was so intimately involved with Sarah, Hagar, Rebekah, and Rachael and Leah. Or maybe the takeaway is that if we are unsatisfied with the content we find in the law related to women, the law is not where God is most active with women. Instead, in narrative passages of Scripture, we find him hearing women's prayers about their families and the issues in their lives. Women without literacy in a community that was quite paternal would have participated in the culture shaped by the law, but the overt politics of the society would have been happening in a different sphere than the one they dwelled in. Their sphere was not recorded, we only have their larger context. But it's been quite interesting to look at what happened when the society of men did turn it's focus to women outside their homes and families.