Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The Red Tent: childbirth and menstruation in the law (passages in Exodus through Leviticus)

When it comes to our female identity, these topics are where the rubber meets the road. They are the details of life that make women different from men. This is evident, not just from the way the Bible talks about these things, but from observation available to anyone.  This part of female experience is common ground for all of us, regardless of our other ideas about what it means to be women. Not all women have children, and not all of us even have periods, but no one does either of those things who is not a woman.

What we learn about women
  • Women experience ceremonial uncleanness while they are having their periods or bleeding after childbirth.
  • Normal bleeding is distinguished from abnormal bleeding or discharge--with normal discharge you don't have to live outside the camp like you do with possible contagious disease processes.
  • Though men are also "unclean until evening" when they ejaculate, women spend much more of their lives unable to enter the temple than men do.
What I'm wondering
  • Since discharges keep you from being allowed to approach God in the temple, perhaps this kind of body function will not occur in our redeemed bodies?
  • What was it like "outside the camp"? I assume they didn't just leave sick people out there with no shelter. Was there a sort of hospital there?
  • Do we acknowledge the physical toll of being a woman too much or too little these days?

Passages about childbirth and menstruation
Ex 21:  If a pregnant mother is injured and her baby is lost, the baby's death is taken into account legally.

Ex 23:26  no infertility or miscarriages is a promised reward for serving the Lord only

Lev 12: purification after childbirth

Lev 15: discharges, and menstruation

The importance of giving birth
In the law, childbirth and menstruation are mentioned in a couple of ways. The obvious gift of new children to God's people is a primary and unmitigated blessing, brought about by women, but at the center of everyone's concern and joy. Success in reproduction was God's initial promise to the patriarchs and their wives, and it is promised as a blessing to all of the Israelites in Exodus 23:26 "You must serve only the Lord your God. If you do, I will bless you with food and water and I will protect you from illness. There will be no miscarriages or infertility in your land, and I will give you long full lives."

A theme of blessing for your children is a primary promise of blessing through the scripture, and is a prime area of concern for all people. We've already mentioned often how central and irreplaceable for humanity is the reproductive work women do. Minimizing this role for women or disassociating it from women's identity does us a great disservice. We only do it when we become jaded to the wonder of life, and distracted from what is arguably our main biological purpose as people--to continue the survival of humanity in order  to continue worship of God and enjoyment of him. We do this by creating, nurturing, and protecting human life. I'd venture to say that all other facets of civilization ultimately serve this goal in some fashion. Childbirth, and the menstrual cycle it depends on, are where the work is accomplished or not.

However, the bulk of the text to do with menstruation and childbirth is in the middle of Leviticus, in the midst of how to take care of kind of gross physical problems like mildew, sores, discharge, and skin diseases. Menstruation, and bleeding after birth are counted as fairly standard "discharges" with required washing, changing of clothes, and waiting. These discharges cause people to be ceremonially unclean until they have been taken care of in the proper way.

The first obvious question is, what does it mean to be ceremonially unclean? The next is, why would this go along with bleeding? And then, practically, what would this mean for the lives of women? If you are unclean, what does life look like compared with when you are clean?

From Numbers 5, it seems that those who were unclean must live outside the camp. But if you count a seven day period and seven days waiting afterward, as it sounds like you might need to in the text, does this mean women were spending half of their lives during their childbearing years outside the camp? Who was making dinner?! In doing some research, I found two excellent articles which I highly recommend if this topic interests or confuses you.

The first helpful article is an entry from Baker's evangelical dictionary ( I found these few sentences defining clean/unclean to be very helpful in understanding what we are talking about here:
In Old Testament times the ordinary state of most things was "cleanness, " but a person or thing could contract ritual "uncleanness" (or "impurity") in a variety of ways: by skin diseases, discharges of bodily fluids, touching something dead ( Num 5:2 ), or eating unclean foods ( Lev 11 ; Deut 14 ).
An unclean person in general had to avoid that which was holy and take steps to return to a state of cleanness. Uncleanness placed a person in a "dangerous" condition under threat of divine retribution, even death ( Lev 15:31 ), if the person approached the sanctuary. Uncleanness could lead to expulsion of the land's inhabitants ( Lev 18:25 ) and its peril lingered upon those who did not undergo purification ( Lev 17:16 ; Num 19:12-13 ).

It seems that a lot of the concern with ceremonial uncleanness is related to like, physical uncleanness. Though menstrual blood and semen are not infectious generally, they still could create unsanitary conditions if not cleaned up afterward. (The mother of young children in me is very curious as to how vomit got left out of this discussion, in my mind the most disgusting and infectious symptom there is! But have I gone too far?) It's interesting that there's a jump from these hygiene problems to the approach to God in his temple. Cleanliness is next to godliness? People with really contagious problems are asked to live away from the camp, while men and women with normal discharge are just to keep away from the temple. What we know about God's character tells me that these people outside the camp would have been in deep fellowship with him, perhaps even more than those healthy ones less aware of their physical weakness and mortality who were worshiping at the temple. But if the temple is a representation of people actually redeemed and in open fellowship with God as we will be when creation is restored, perhaps this is why symptoms of disease and even physical phenomena that are just a little less than sanitary are to keep away.

This article  ( about female purity is VERY THOROUGH, i.e. long, but so so helpful for thinking through how the verses about menstruation should be read, and how they have been interpreted by the Jewish community over the last few (thousand) years.  To attempt to grossly summarize (see what I did there?), the author shows that in the text there is a contrast between normal female and male discharges, which are menstrual bleeding and ejaculations, and abnormal bleeding and male discharge. Normal menstrual periods do not require a 7 day waiting period afterward afterward before purification, while abnormal bleeding does. But in the interpretation of these laws by (male) rabbis over the years, the traditions became more and more restrictive about waiting times after menstruation and requirements for women to be sure they were not bleeding and causing uncleanness to their families, especially in priestly families. The author points out that for a man to have sex with a menstruating woman, and then enter the temple for worship is an almost unforgivable sin which can curse the entire nation and be punished by death (see above description of clean/unclean). That's worth thinking about! Why on earth?

I think we have some real food for thought when it is implied that regular menstruation (and ejaculation) which is part and parcel of the normal experience of post fall men and women is not a part of God's ideal fellowship with us. Are periods a consequence of the fall?? We have Jesus's statement that after the resurrection we will not be married, could this have something to do with the way our bodies will work and not work for reproduction when they are glorified? No babies were born that we know of until after the fall, and it looks like no marriage, and possibly no menstruation or ejaculation afterward. Does that mean that this period of post-fall pre-redemption will be the only epoch where new humans are created? Whew the speculation is running wild here!

Weighing the burden
But leaving all that aside and taking as a given that this is just what God asks of the Israelites under the law, we should consider that this abstaining from the temple while menstruating creates a big difference for men and women in how they participate in the public life of the faith community. Periods heavily influenced the lives of women in the Israelite community, and still do for women today.

Even in the age of lots of reasonably convenient feminine hygiene products, periods are still a pain. And at this point in our blogging journey, it is perhaps time to lay out in detail what it means for women physically that ours is the burden of bearing children. Though it is also the greatest privilege, here let's look at the cost we cover to do it.

During our most productive adult years for one week out of four, we will have periods, which entail, at least, the extra logistical difficulty of constantly managing bloodflow. This absolutely must be dealt with, no matter how long the bathroom line, or how inconvenient to find and carry the necessary supplies. In addition, many women suffer physical pain and weakness from cramps, and headaches, and emotional trouble from chemical storms in our brains. Even if we are not pregnant, our immune systems take the week off to protect a potential new invading life, and we get sick more easily. This is happening for 25% of our lives when we are about 12-47. This, alone, is a uniquely female vulnerability that has serious consequences for what we are able to accomplish in life. But women are amazing, and we surmount these obstacles pretty deftly to compete with men, until . . . we become pregnant.

Bearing a child is an incredible experience. Though some people say they aren't interested in doing it, for many women, we know from the get go that this is something we hope desperately for. Until children our born, there's no way to understand how profoundly we will be changed, but for most women, we instinctively know we want to do this. The pursuit of this goal makes it a fairly straightforward decision for women to arrange their lives around giving birth to and caring for their children. And though again of course we are not speaking in absolute universals, for most women, this heaviest burden brings the most powerful joy. Joy in the life and blessing of their children causes women's priorities to change so that their own individual happiness and purposes are no longer in the drivers seat. Once a baby arrives, the ability to advance your own agenda is compromised by the alignment of your own goals with those of a completely helpless infant who turns into an unruly and irrational child. This is where the most profound weakness happens for mothers. Good men realign their lives in a similar way, though perhaps not quite as profoundly as women experience. But the standard biological man is free to create a child and never think about the fact again in a way that a woman is not.

These economics of power and blessing in reproduction are at such a deep level of human experience, that we often have to challenge ourselves to remember that they are going on despite the fact that they order the world we live in. The specific parts of the law that deal with hygiene related to bodily discharge are a testimony that this physical phenomenon is a real factor in daily life that it is fair to acknowledge. The fact that this kind of human dirt is not permitted in the temple is thought-provoking tidbit, tempting me to to think that our redeemed bodies will be easier to manage and (please God!) involve less cleaning up. But for now, it's good to know that in the law, some of the cost of the blessing of bringing new life into the world is counted.

As for an acknowledgement of the work of motherhood itself, I think this is reflected in the entire structure of Israelite society where women as a class are acknowledged as needing support and care from the men in their lives, their fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons. You can see how the vision for patriarchy makes sense even though God knows, we all know, it has been horribly abused almost always. Next time we'll explore more about that in the context of how the law deals with marriage and sex.

But one final thing to think about: the law says menstruating women must not come to the Temple, and that sick people can't even live in the camp with everyone else. This seems like an additional level of hardship for people already dealing with some difficulty. But though it is not mentioned in the law, we know that God is with those who are weak and who suffer in a way that can be even more profound than when we experience in health and strength. Though they are not joining God's people assembled to meet him in cleanness in the Temple, I feel sure that God would have been meeting them in their trouble on the outside. He comes to sinners, to the weak, to the sick, to meet us, heal us, take up our cause and ultimately redeem us. When we are weak, then we are strong.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Captive women (Passages in Ex through Deut)

What to do with the fact that in the Bible we have the matter of fact discussion of slavery, enslaved women in particular, and women captured in war and taken as brides? These ideas are completely opposed to what we hope for as the ideal for women in a civil society. Yet here they are described and legislated in the Torah, God's law for his chosen people.

To understand this, we have to return to two concepts we have used already a few times when looking at strange and unacceptable cultural practices and patterns. First of all we have to say simply: times were different. Second, we have to remember that within the different times, people were the same, and God worked with them to restrain and root out their sin, and bring them to faith in his work in the world within the context where they found themselves.

I'd also like to add a third consideration though, that we have been thinking through as a pattern for how women experience life in the world. This is the idea that because of the physical factors of being a woman and bearing children, women are often both categorically and individually in positions of less power than the men around them. Though women are equal in value, (or you could argue that our unique ability to nurture new life makes us even more valuable!) we find ourselves in dependent positions in life because of the very thing that makes us so special: we have babies.

If the law had been penned by American intellectuals in modern times, surely our experts on morality, human rights, and ethics would have struggled to find some way to make life look more similar for the two main kinds of people there are in the world. But that "law" could only do so by writing off what women can uniquely accomplish with their bodies. Attempts to frame our moral law in this way have led to strategies as extreme as abortion, and switching genders, to make sure everything is equal and fair. But the law written by God is different. It operates in consideration of the relative vulnerability of women, and what to do with that in a culture of powerful men. (Is ours ultimately so different in that respect?)

What we learn about women
  • Women had very little legal power and life agency in the culture the law pertains to, and under the law enslaved women were near the ultimate bottom of the power totem pole. 
  • The law allows marriage to wives who are enslaved in some circumstances. 
  • A woman's consent for marriage is not mentioned in these passages where women are in captive situations.
  • There are different conditions required for male and female slaves to gain freedom. Women pay a lower price for redemption. But without paying for freedom, they are not necessarily freed after 6 years as men are.

What I'm wondering
  • Why are there different laws in Ex 21 for male and female slaves regarding freedom?
  • Is God ok with the Israelites having foreign wives or not? If they are slaves, is that the difference that makes it acceptable enough to legislate?
  • What was the status of the rare captive wife who attained freedom when her husband neglected or was displeased with her? Where did these women fit in Israel? Did they?
  • How does all this apply to our modern culture where we have provisions for women other than marriage to avoid physical danger and starvation? What would a modern civil Christian law look like regarding women? Or is this even necessary to consider since we know from Jesus's teaching that all of the law is contained in the commandments to love God supremely and to love our neighbors as ourselves?

The passages about women as slaves and captives
Ex. 21: slaves and their wives, freedom for male and female slaves and/or wives

Lev 19: sex with a slave girl promised to be married to another man - "since she is not a free woman, neither the man nor the woman will be put to death" followed by instructions for the forgiveness of the man's sin.

Lev 29: value of male and female people for "redemption"

Nu 31: virgin girls listed as plunder

Deut: 15: 17 ear-piercing as a symbol of a servant who wants to stay with his master's family applies to female servants too

Deut 21: a captive woman may be married after she has time to mourn for the family she lost in war. She cannot be sold or demoted to slave status if she displeases her husband.

Hebrew slaves, wait what?
When Moses meets God on Mount Sinai, the first instructions he brings down for the people are the ten commandments. But surprisingly, immediately after that, and before instructions for setting up the Tabernacle, we have rules dealing with slaves. How strange, that for this people whose whole identity is established in the moment they are freed from slavery, among the first of the regulations God gives to them are what to do, "if you buy a Hebrew slave."

The laws do say that a Hebrew slave is not a slave categorically and must be freed after 6 years. However they also give instructions for what to do if a slave is happy with his master and wants to stay on permanently. Even more interesting for us, the main reason given for why someone might want to stay has to do with marriage.

Remember, we are in a world where conditions of life are very different from our current ideals. We know from reading both history and the news that the human rights we want for each person are harder to come by in the world than we'd like. Twenty-first century Americans are at a high water mark for individual power compared with most of the rest of civilization throughout history, and yet still divisions between the haves and the have-nots, and oppression of the weak by the strong, are pervasive problems. Should we have expected to find in God's law the formula for a society where these dynamics are avoided? We certainly wanted to expect that. But let's do the exercise of really opening our minds to consider that maybe our ideas are influenced by our own culture (the same way we'd like to explain the standards we find here), and that in Scripture we are receiving revelation from God, applied to a particular culture, but according to truth that stands forever. With that in mind, let's do our best to imagine the context, and look for the truth that speaks to it, then bring our own context under that same truth.

So back to Hebrew slaves, and considerations for them about marriage, family, and freedom. In a world where the sharp edge of economic inequality forged from a combination of circumstance and human influence could cut deep enough to kill, a person might decide to offer their full service in exchange for sustenance. God does not rule this strategy out, clearly, but he also says that it must not be permanent. A person who does this must be considered to be in a particular situation, not to be a particular (inferior) kind of person. So at the end of six years, a slave must be offered freedom. But at that time the person's own assessment of his or her status as a slave/dependent on a master can be taken into consideration, and if a person finds himself weak and prefers to rely on the authority of a good master for life, he or she is allowed to stay. This scenario strikes me as neither categorically bleak nor optimistic. It takes into account how complex and unequal life can be.

The male-female power dynamic again
The part here about women though, puts them even less in control than male slaves.  The first part of the text says that if a man was single when he became a slave, he will "leave single" and if he brought a wife with him, she too will be free when he is. But the interesting third circumstance here is if a man was single when he became a slave, but his master "provided" him a wife and they have children. In that case, the wife and children would stay with the master and the man alone would be free. This is a perplexing situation. If the man wants to stay with his family, he has to declare "I love my master,  my wife and my children. I don't want to go free" (emphasis mine). And then he can become a permanent slave in a ceremony where before God, his ear is pierced with an awl into the doorpost. Ouch. But what if the slave would like to be free, but would not like to leave his family? It appears that he has to choose. This is because these women who are sold by their families into slavery are not freed at the end of six years.

Before we try to figure out why, notice in all this discussion that women are being given and taken and sold. They are not the decision-makers here. We really squirm with all of this because we don't like the idea of women with no power being forced into situations they didn't choose, with no recourse if they don't like them. But we are going to have to bust our molds again and think back at what we know about authority: that it is an obligation to help and protect. Women in Israel were clearly not in a powerful situation, probably partially due to the physical factors women always face, and partially due to cultural patterns set up around those physical facts, patterns that can wind up having equal or greater force than physical factors. In this way of living, men were in de facto authority. Because of that fact, they were responsible to care for, provide for, and protect the women in their lives. It was their responsibility not to take advantage of women, but to nurture them. We can look back with cynical hindsight at what often happens in these relationships. But the ideal itself could have been good.

The rest of the Exodus passage is anticipating the cynicism we are experiencing. It restricts men who have female slaves from selling them to foreigners (who would have no scruples about nurturing women) if they are displeased with them, denying them full daughterhood when they marry sons, or neglecting them in the inadvisable circumstance that they take another wife. (Ugh this is here again! I guess if Abraham, and Israel himself, did it we should not be surprised to see polygamy acknowledged in the law though.) As we'll see in a bit, I don't think it's entirely clear whether the other wife is an additional wife, or a different wife. If a first wife married out of slavery is neglected, this is the only way the text allows her to be freed.

Laws about wives who are slaves
Sorting through all these scenarios about marriage and Hebrew slaves, I realized I need some outside interpretive help. I found several interesting articles dealing with Hebrew slavery and how difficult it is to understand. Some of the articles also look at the other passages we have in our list above. Exodus 21 and Deuteronomy 15 both talk about freeing slaves after 6 years. Deuteronomy's version is not so caustic to our ears, either, it says that both male and female slaves should be freed after 6 years. Why the difference? A third passage in Leviticus gives us some clues, though it wasn't on our list of parts of the law about women specifically. This passage also links us to the other difficult verses for this post about women who have been captured in war. In Leviticus 25, there is more discussion of slavery in general. The key part for us comes in verses 44-46.
Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. 45 You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. 46 You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.
This passage shows that the law actually allows permanant slavery for non-Israelites. Some think this means the enslaved women who are not freed after 6 years are women captured in war, non-Israelites. Since God called his people to be set apart from the unredeemed nations around them, he would not allow those who were not his people to live in community with them. As slaves, they could be in a dependent position, but not full members of society. I presume, that if they would turn to worship the true God, they could be counted as true Israelites and the laws that applied to them would change?

I'm actually not sure that "foreign women" argument holds up though, because in the Exodus passage, the female slaves have been given into slavery by their fathers, not taken in war. But I did find a direct Hebrew translation here ( that to me gave a lot more help in how to understand what Exodus is saying.

The אמה (Slave-Wife) Law
כא:ז וְכִֽי יִמְכֹּ֥ר אִ֛ישׁ אֶת בִּתּ֖וֹ לְאָמָ֑ה לֹ֥א תֵצֵ֖א כְּצֵ֥את הָעֲבָדִֽים:
כא:ח אִם רָעָ֞ה בְּעֵינֵ֧י אֲדֹנֶ֛יהָ אֲשֶׁר לא ל֥וֹ יְעָדָ֖הּ וְהֶפְדָּ֑הּ לְעַ֥ם נָכְרִ֛י לֹא יִמְשֹׁ֥ל לְמָכְרָ֖הּ בְּבִגְדוֹ בָֽהּ:
כא:ט וְאִם לִבְנ֖וֹ יִֽיעָדֶ֑נָּה כְּמִשְׁפַּ֥ט הַבָּנ֖וֹת יַעֲשֶׂה לָּֽהּ:
כא:י אִם אַחֶ֖רֶת יִֽקַּֽח ל֑וֹ שְׁאֵרָ֛הּ כְּסוּתָ֥הּ וְעֹנָתָ֖הּ לֹ֥א יִגְרָֽע:
כא:יא וְאִם שְׁלָ֨שׁ אֵ֔לֶּה לֹ֥א יַעֲשֶׂ֖ה לָ֑הּ וְיָצְאָ֥ה חִנָּ֖ם אֵ֥ין כָּֽסֶף:
21:7 When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not be freed as male slaves are.
21:8 If she proves to be displeasing to her master, who designated her for himself, he must let her be redeemed; he shall not have the right to sell her to outsiders, since he broke faith with her.
21:9 And if he designated her for his son, he shall deal with her as is the practice with free maidens.
21:10 If he marries another, he must not withhold from this one her food, her clothing, or her shelter.[2]
21:11 If he fails her in these three ways, she shall go free, without payment.

I read in this article ( that daughters could be given into slavery temporarily, almost in place of a dowry, with the understanding that at the end of 6 years they would be married either to a man or to his son, and become full daughters/wives. And that seems to go along perfectly with this translation. (It sounds exactly like the arrangement Jacob entered into with Laban to marry his daughters, in fact.) The idea is more palatable as well, as a provision for a family whose daughter could otherwise not afford to marry.

I find this to be one of the most difficult passages related to women in the law to understand, but I feel somewhat satisfied by the servanthood/dowry agreement theory.

Women captured in battle
Next let's turn to Numbers 31 and Deuteronomy 21 which are about marriage to women captured in battle. This is probably has it's closest modern association in our minds with ISIS or Boko Haram. Phew. Again, we will need to time travel with our mindsets. The whole concept of the kind of warfare we find in the Old Testament is jarring to modern Americans. (Although, to be honest, as I watch Game of Thrones, fast forwarding a lot, I feel like I'm getting a whole new context for what the world was like in Bible times.) The ideas that redemption is possible for everyone, and things like wiping out enemies completely and using the death penalty are categorically wrong, come from Christian gospel principles. These principles have since been co-opted and applied by non-believers who always want mercy on physical life without concern for the weightier spiritual truths involved. Here in the Bible, in God's battles, physical life is not spared, showing the judgment deserved by all those who live apart from him in sin. The pagan armies that oppose the Israelites are generally not asking for mercy and if they too can live God's way. They are out to horribly destroy, and must be stopped by killing. But often the women, who have not been violently opposing the Israelites can be spared. This is a world where women living alone are not able to survive in safety and prosperity. So what to do, but place them in households where they will be supported and protected, and expected to contribute by working? And it makes sense that their rights are restricted since they are not pledged to live under God's law.

We do hear that these captured women may be taken as wives though. And we have the passage where if a man has sex with a female slave who is committed to become someone else's wife, he must pay a brideprice for her, neither of them are punished since she was not free. This is followed by instructions for his purification. You can see why a captive woman would not be punished for having sex with (or maybe even being raped by?) a free man, and the man is the one who would need to be purified. But maybe we are to read this as the man having to marry her, similar to the law we'll talk about later to do with what happens if a man seduces any virgin. But the woman's consent is not even thought of in any of these passages. It is apparently a more modern idea.

Later on in the Bible, and even just later in the law, though, we see God's great displeasure at marriages between the Israelites and "foreign women" who lead them away from God's commandments. How did the slave wife fit into this picture? Was God ok with foreign women being taken as wives, as long as they maintained a lesser status? That seems totally odd. I think perhaps the key is our romantic ideal of marriage (the source of a lot of relationship trouble these days, amiright?) versus the cultural structure of marriage that kept the weaker members of society, the women and children, taken care of.

Women captured in battle would have been completely vulnerable and needed to be somehow worked into society. They could be simply female slaves, or taken as wives by the Israelites. Presumably captive wives would have legitimately joined the civil and religious society, while slaves would only have been supported and managed. This distinction would fit with the instructions in Deuteronomy 21 for the transition of a captive woman from a slave to a wife. She is given time to mourn the loss of her family, and then is free to be married. But if later the husband is displeased with her, she cannot be demoted to a slave. She must be set free, echoing the passage in Exodus we looked at above.

Maybe the difference that causes God's later disapproval of marriage to foreign women comes when Israelite men marry women who were not vulnerable, who were living within their own communities, and would have been able to influence their husbands to accept their cultures rather than the reverse?

How much is a person worth?
There certainly is a LOT to stew on here. Before we finish, one last observation from to do with women and slavery from Leviticus 27. The way that either a male or female slave can be freed under the law is through the payment of a redemption price. In this passage, the prices for men and women for redemption are different. Men can be redeemed for fifty shekels of silver, women for thirty. I think the obvious reason for this seems correct, that men are generally bigger and stronger and can do heavier work than women. The value of the work they do is greater, therefore their prices as laborers is more.

This brings us full circle to the beginning of the post when I was wondering if you could actually say that women are worth more as people because of the ability we have to bear children. I don't actually think that. People find themselves in whatever circumstances they are in, weak or strong, able bodied or not, rich or poor, male or female, tall or short, sick or well. Their ultimate value is in their humanity which lives and learns to work within these circumstances. Value other than our humanity can only be assigned relative to certain categories. Men are worth more for carrying bricks. Women are worth more for carrying children. The well are worth more for considering possibilities, the sick are worth more for considering limitations. The rich are worth more for providing resources. The poor are worth more for stretching those resources. The true value-determining factor for everyone is the orientation of their heart, how completely it is set on loving God and trying to please him. What quantity of bodily resources we have to accomplish that aim are not what really counts.

On that note, let's wrap up. There is plenty here to file away as observations and questions, and save for continued context as we keep moving. The main thing to hold on to I think, is the factor of the difference in cultural structure in a far less gentle world than the one in which we currently live. This culture did not promote equality, but did require the protection of the weak by the strong.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Women in the Law: overview

Most of what we've been reading so far in the Bible has been historical narrative. We've heard and thought about specific events, specific people, and specific things that happened to them. But we are now moving into a section of laws. For pages and pages, we have directions, procedures, rules and consequences, for life in Israel. Lucky for us, many of these pertain to women and the differences between women and men. The law has many parts, and continues from Exodus through Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. We will have to get to the book of Joshua before the narrative picks up. But there is SO much to discuss in these more abstract statements about the way things are or should be with regard to women in the Hebrew culture.

What we learn about women:
  • There seem to be four main areas specific to women that the law deals with: female slaves and captive women, marriage and sex, childbirth and menstruation, and public life.
  • Laws about these things are scattered throughout the Torah, we are grouping them together thematically
  • Many of the different laws for men and women are related to how our bodies work in reproduction and physical/logistical repercussions of that.

What I'm wondering:
  • Since the laws we find here deal with life in a society where sin is present and has to be punished, we can say these probably aren't perfect cultural ideals. What would the cultural ideal for men and women in society be?
  • Why is the law delivered so piecemeal rather than organized into categories? How was it used in court?

The order of the Law in the rest of the Torah
For the sake of orientation, let me first chunk out the order of what is in the books that contain the Law. We are starting in Exodus, after the exodus really.

Generally, in Exodus, we have the Israelites brought out of Egypt, then God's initial instructions to Moses on Mount Sinai. These include the ten commandments, and some civil laws about slaves and personal injury, but the bulk of the Exodus instructions are about how to make the tabernacle--the temple in tent-form which they will need to worship in the desert.

Leviticus contains detailed instructions for the religious practice of the Jews, how to consecrate the priests, do the sacrifices and offerings, how the people can be ceremonially cleansed, and what the festivals entail.

Numbers is a mix of several kinds of text. It begins with a census of the Israelites, then records the history of them starting to consecrate priests and use the Tabernacle in the desert. This includes rebellions and battles, it's the context for Miriam's story from the last post. Numbers ends with a list of the clans descended from each of Israel's sons, a recap of their travels through the desert, and a statement of the boundaries of the new promised land. There are a few instructions for worship scattered in here and there too in Numbers.

Deuteronomy gives us Moses' personal message to the Israelites before his death and before the enter the promised land. It's part testimony, part instructions, and part inspiration. There are specific regulations given, but in the context of a lot of urging of how important it is for the Israelites to fully serve the Lord.

As we read through the specific parts about women within the law, it will be good to keep those contexts in mind. Don't worry, I'll remind you if I think it is important, but I just wanted to lay out the general shape of the rest of the Torah before we go to specific parts about women.

The four main topics involving women in the Law
Having paged through this entire section, I think the four main topics that we should look at are marriage and sex, menstruation and childbirth, women as slaves and captives (ready to get your cultural dissonance glasses on?), and public life: inheritance, vows, etc. I think we will have to treat each topic with a separate post to avoid exhaustion for both writer and reader. : ) Below I've listed the passages I've noticed that deal each area, but rather than printing them out, I will summarize. For those that really pique your interest, you may want to look yourself.

Marriage and sex
Ex 22: "seducing a virgin," exploiting widows and orphans

Lev 18: rules about sex

Lev 20: punishments for sexual sins

Lev 21: who priests can marry

Lev 22: daughters sharing the priests food, interesting tidbit about divorced women with no children returning to their father's houses.

Nu 5: test for a wife's faithfulness

Nu 26: Moabite women seducing Israelite men, and the punishment for this, including spearing a couple together, which stops a plague.

Deut 20:7 new marriage an excuse to stay home from war

Childbirth and menstruation
Ex 21:  If a pregnant mother is injured and her baby is lost, the baby's death is taken into account legally.

Ex 23:26  no infertility or miscarriages is a promised reward for serving the Lord only

Lev 12: purification after childbirth

Lev 15: discharges, and menstruation

Numbers: counting and dedicating firstborn sons

Slaves and captives
Ex. 21: slaves and their wives, freedom for male and female slaves and/or wives

Lev 19: sex with a slave girl and "since she is not a free woman, neither the man nor the woman will be put to death" followed by instructions for the forgiveness of the man's sin.

Lev 29: value of male and female people for "redemption"

Nu 31: virgin girls listed as plunder

Deut: 15: 17 ear-piercing as a symbol of a servant who wants to stay with his master's family applies to female servants too

Deut 21: marriage to captive women

Public life
Ex 35: women did the spinning and sewing for the tabernacle

Leviticus: which sex matters for sacrificed animals

Nu 26:46 only Asher's daughter mentioned

Nu 27: the daughters of Zelophehad (also in 26:33 and ch 36)

Nu 30: vows women make to the Lord and how their male family can influence those vows.

Deut 22:5: cross dressing

In all of these topics, it will be fascinating to tease out how the factor of a person's gender affects the way the law applies to them, and how life should work for them. I remember reading this part of the Bible as a small girl, and it was one of the first places it occurred to me that things are different for men and women in the Bible. Because God's law gives us his instructions which we would be happiest and most blessed if we were able to uphold, we should get some interesting insight about how gender should factor into the context of daily life in community. But let's also remember, that the law is intended for sinners, and refers to situations where the starting point is that things have gone wrong. It's good to keep in mind that Jesus tells us in Matthew that all the law and the prophets hang on the two greatest commandments, that we love God supremely, and love our neighbors as ourselves. However strange some of the specific laws seem, we should try to interpret them in this light. I will head into the section about women as captives and slaves with some trepidation at the fact that God gives us situations to work with where women have been captured in battle as slaves, or sold into slavery by their families. Praying for wisdom there! Let's hope this struggle to study and attempt to pull some overarching wisdom from this part of the Bible will be really useful for understanding who God intends us to be as women.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Miriam, the punished prophet ( Ex 15:21, Num 12)

Leaving the enigmatic Zipporah, we move on to look at the life and experience of Moses' sister, Miriam. She figures more prominently into the story than his wife, though as always we still don't know as much about her as I'd like! The main topics we'll explore in her story are bulleted below to give you a preview. Keep reading for a deeper dive into the text.

What we learn about women:
  • Miriam was known and acknowledged as a prophet.
  • She led the Israelite women in singing after the Red Sea.
  • When she and Aaron became confident enough to criticize Moses and believe she could equal his status, God punished her, though not to the same extent as other Israelites who asserted themselves against Moses' authority.
  • There was a distinction in her rebuke from God from Aaron's, though they seem to have done the same thing.
  • Moses' authority here is not how we normally think of "the man." He is plagued by his duty to keep the people safe, and prefers the idea of death to continuing in his work.

What I'm wondering:
  • The obvious!: Why is Miriam punished with leprosy when Aaron is not?
  • What was the role of a female prophet like in Israel? 
  • How far off is our regular relationship with authority, both upward and downward, from this idea of a burden to care for those under you?

A prophet in Egypt
We have already discussed Miriam a bit when we talked about Moses' birth and first escape from Pharaoh as an infant in his basket in the reeds. Remember, Miriam stayed to keep watch over Moses, and then organized the recruitment of his mother to be his nurse for Pharaoh's daughter. Already at a young age, she was displaying great resourcefulness and ingenuity in solving problems and working out God's will.

When we come back to Miriam after the story of Moses, Pharaoh, and the plagues, she is re-introduced in an exciting way, as "Miriam the prophet, Aaron's sister." So far, in the Bible we haven't heard much mention of prophets. God calls Abraham a prophet when he speaks with king Abimelech about him, but we don't hear the title "Abraham the prophet" like we do here with Miriam. There are some very tricky parts of Miriam's story coming up in Exodus, but this detail in her introduction is really cool. Apparently everyone knew and acknowledged that Miriam had a relationship with God that was close enough to deliver his messages. We haven't yet met a woman in that kind of relationship with God.

We find Miriam the prophet playing music on her timbrel and leading the women of Israel in singing and dancing for joy and victory after they escape the Red Sea and Pharaoh's army. This must have been an incredible high point in Miriam's life. She has had the honor of having first saved her brother's life, and then seen his growth from exiled murderer to rescuer of her people. She is now in place with her two brothers as a spiritual leader of the nation of Israel. Considering her leading of the women in song, perhaps we are looking at the first women's ministry leader among God's people?

From the Red Sea we enter the long and winding journey of the Israelites to the promised land, from which they will be rebuffed with unworthy faith to enter, and have to head back on another winding journey. If you, like me, are less than an Exodus scholar, you will probably, like me, find the timeline of all the camping and moving and complaining along the way to be a bit muddled in your mind. Also complicating things is that over the next few books of the Bible, there are extra details thrown in about what happened, either as further explanation, another version of the story, or recalled as summary. I am trying my best to keep it straight, but it's a little hard to follow. However, we'll see that the context of the journey: the refining of God's people as they get to know him and learn to develop awe of his holiness and fear of his power, is very important to understanding the remainder of Miriam's story.

As it unfolds, we find Miriam and Aaron complaining against and criticizing Moses. We talked about this criticism of Moses in the last post, because it had to do with Zipporah. There seem to be two parts to what Miriam and Aaron, who are not distinguished in their actions, were saying. First of all, they were "talking against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite." But also they were saying, "Has the Lord only spoken through Moses? Hasn't he also spoken through us?" In my mind these are very separate critiques, first of all that Moses marriage counted against him somehow, and second, that he was almost uppity about his relationship with the Lord. The second critique is what the Lord addresses in his response, contrasting his relationship with Moses with the comparatively lower ranking relationships he has with his prophets. The consequences of the Lord's anger and disapproval with Miriam and Aaron are dramatic. "The Lord left." And when the cloud disappeared, Miriam was left "white as snow" with leprosy.

Right away, my female antennae are up. If both Aaron and Miriam were complaining against Moses, why is Miriam the only one afflicted with leprosy? Aaron is horrified, and begs for Moses forgiveness, and that he will not let Miriam remain that way. He is apparently learning the lesson that Moses is special to God, and is the person through whom he should approach God. Interestingly, he attributes the punishment to Moses rather than God, saying to Moses, "Oh my Master! Please don't punish us for the sin we have so foolishly committed!"

Moses then does cry out for God to heal her. God relents, but explains to Moses, "If her father had done nothing more than spit in her face, wouldn't she be defiled for seven days? So keep her outside the camp for seven days, then she may be accepted back." Ouch. If I understand this right, God is saying that what has happened to Miriam is worse than if her father had spit in her face. God has effectively "spit in her face?" This is hard to wrap your mind around.

My guess is that what we are looking at is an issue of authority, wrapped in ancient cultural trappings. Even across the millennia, it seems clear that this gesture from a father to daughter could only be understood as harsh disapproval and even humiliation. Apparently at that time it would also be associated with deserving exile outside the camp for seven days. This must have been a clear enforcement of fatherly authority, displaying the relative lack of power a daughter would have had if she would cross him. We don't like that in our culture, it definitely speaks of stronger parental authority that we would like to acknowledge. (But I think also sometimes we are unsatisfied with the amount of influence parents are able to exert over wayward kids?) So if God is saying this punishment serves a similar function, that Miriam has shown disregard for Moses', and through Moses, God's authority, she deserves and receives the same type of censure.

But still, why just Miriam, and not Aaron? Is it due to her gender, or to another distinction that the text doesn't let us in on between Miriam's and Aaron's sins? Perhaps the very fact that Miriam is punished in this way is evidence that she was somehow the main instigator?

A wider angle
Either way, we get a lot of additional context for all this when we look at the rest of Numbers. What immediately precedes this episode is Numbers 11, subtitled "The people complain to Moses," which is followed by "the complaints of Aaron and Miriam." In the preceding chapter, we have a lengthy description of how the Israelites en masse are complaining about their lack of food compared with the "melons, leeks, onions, and garlic" they used to have in Egypt. As a result of this, fire from the Lord comes and consumes some of them (!), until Moses prays for it to stop. Then Moses and the Lord both become aggravated by the continual whining of the Israelites. Moses himself actually complains to the Lord about what a burden these people are, saying he would rather God just kill him and spare him the misery, than continue serving the troublesome Israelites. At this, God tells Moses to gather 70 respected elders, whom he will also pour out his spirit upon, to help Moses govern. These men are summoned to the Tabernacle, and God does pour out his spirit upon them so they can prophesy, "but this never happened again." Later on in the chapter, Moses tells a young Joshua, son of nun, "I wish that all the Lord's people were prophets and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them all!"

This is what immediately precedes the story of Aaron and Miriam's complaint. Moses has already been dealing with unjust whining and complaints about his leadership from the general public, and now it comes from his closest companions as well. In comparison with being consumed by fire, Miriam's temporary leprosy seems like a more measured punishment. Set alongside the complaints of the whole nation, and Moses' wish for more of God's people to share in his spirit, Aaron and Miriam's presumption, "hasn't he also spoken through us?" and complaints about Moses marriage also seem more offensive. We still have the question of why Miriam is struck with leprosy and not Aaron, but it becomes smaller in the grand scheme.

We don't hear about Miriam any more until her death, which happens just before Moses's sin involving the water from the rock, where he will be excluded from entering the promised land. The chapters in between are filled with dramatic events. When Miriam re-enters the camp, the next stop is the border of the promised land, where scouts are sent out to explore. The people rebel, refusing to enter, and are almost destroyed completely by God, except for Moses' intervention. Korah leads another rebellion a few chapters later, along the same theme of Aaron and Miriam's complaints "What right do you have to act as though you are greater than the rest of the Lord's people?" It doesn't end well for him and his followers: they are swallowed up into the ground, or consumed by fire. When rest of the people complain about this harsh punishment, a plague begins among them, and is only stopped when Aaron burns incense to purify them and runs between the healthy and sick people to stop it's spread. Following that, when the people despair that the Lord is just too dangerous for them to be around, God proves through the budding of Aaron's staff that Aaron and his descendants will be the priests who alone are allowed to approach God for the people. The Lord says "This should put an end to their complaints against me and prevent any further deaths." Alas, the complaints continue, prompting both water from the rock, and attack by poisonous snakes. This cycle of the people repenting when they see God's power, only to forget and complain again when things get difficult will characterize God's relationship with his people for the rest of history. Miriam and Aaron's complaining, set in this context, is just part of the pattern. But it does show that even they are not immune from sin and it's consequences.

Miriam is absent from any more action in the text, though Aaron is a central figure, as the first priest of Israel. Her death is announced with none of the fanfare present when Aaron is called up the mountain to join his fathers. We hadn't heard much about her before the complaining, and we have nothing afterward, so it's hard to say if her rebuke from God defined her life afterward the way it defines the story we have of her.

Authority in general
But we can combine two interesting things we know about her to create a picture that's admittedly a little vague, but still has some meaningful form. She was definitely a prophet, and yet she was singled out for rebuke by God when she critiqued the person in spiritual authority over her. God knew her and revealed himself to her, but when she became too familiar and disrespected Moses she was not immune to punishment that was only removed through his mediation. As contemporary women we can take a parallel that we may know God intimately and serve him in a powerful capacity while not being free of authority structures he has ordained.

There's also a further observation to be made here about authority in general. In these chapters where complaining and insubordination lead to such harsh punishments from God, it's interesting to note that one of the main functions of Moses authority is to protect the people from God's anger. We rebel against the idea of a head honcho resting on his laurels and bossing everyone else around. But in Moses' case, his authority is very different. Again and again, he is distraught at the burden of having to continually correct the people and keep them from getting themselves killed by God. So much of his job involves helping them, keeping them safe, and pleading for God to have mercy on them. If we could learn to view our authorities in this way, as keeping us from getting ourselves into trouble with the highest heavenly authority, and learn to view those under our authority as in need of protection from God's judgment of their offenses against him, we might improve the health of all of our hierarchical relationships. God does not appear tame and cuddly in these chapters. We tend to forget this part of his nature. When we do so, we start to forget our awe in general, and also in particular our respect toward those he sets in place to administer his will.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

The family of foreigners: Zipporah's difficult cross-cultural marriage (Ex 2-4, 18)

We opened Exodus with wonderful female characters in stories that were thrillingly easy to appreciate and understand. Not so with our next woman, Zipporah. We know just a little about her--enough to really pique our interest and, frankly, leave us very perplexed. She is a foreigner, not an Israelite, and there is a veil over a lot of the details of this exotic woman's life. But lets dive in and learn what we can.

Beautiful strangers meet in Midian
By the time Moses meets Zipporah, his life has become even more complicated than it was at his birth, which is saying a lot. He has been raised in Pharaoh's house, but feels a sense of identity with his own people, the Hebrews, who are enslaved and bitterly oppressed by Pharaoh. After his identity conflict boils over and causes him to commit murder of an Egyptian who was whipping a Hebrew slave, he is forced to flee to the wilderness.

Exiled from the home into which he was adopted, out of his own people, who are exiles themselves, Moses is a foreigner in so many senses when he sits down by a well in Midian. We, however, are in familiar territory, knowing exactly what happens when young men show up at wells in foreign lands. When the priest of Midian's seven daughters come to water their flocks, they are chased away by other shepherds, but Moses rescues them from the shepherds and wins himself an invitation to dinner with Reuel or Jethro, the priest of Midian. And sure enough, we are not kept waiting for the news, in the next sentence, we learn that "In time Reuel gave his daughter Zipporah to Moses for a wife." When they have a son, Moses names him Gershom, "foreigner." You can read Moses' mind easily here. Though he seems to have settled happily in Midian, he still feels like an alien.

The lovely thing about a romance that occurs when you are away from home is that it is exempt from the stresses of your other life. Moses, having run away from his really complicated identity situation in Egypt, could be, in Midian, nothing but the herder of Jethro's sheep, and the husband of Zipporah. Moses had a small and manageable world in his escape. To Zipporah, Moses must have seemed brave, exotic, and just troubled enough to be interesting.

But when God breaks into Moses' life and interrupts his avoidance strategy, Zipporah's life, as well as Moses', will be completely turned upside down. Surely God's call to Moses disrupted and completely changed his life, but he had a context for it. He was receiving a redemptive challenge that would bring together his life struggle, focus it, and define both himself and and God's people.  But for Zipporah, who didn't share Moses cultural identity and history, it must have felt quite disorienting. She probably had entertained the idea that her foreigner might someday want to visit home, but she couldn't have imagined a scenario like this, where her husband would be called to face off with Pharaoh, and she would eventually need to travel with a whole nation of in-laws through the red sea and then the desert.

But Moses doesn't lead with his unique calling from God when he approaches Jethro about returning to Egypt. He goes with the milder, "Please let me return to my relatives in Egypt, I don't even know if any of them are still alive." Jethro gives his blessing and the family sets off. This journey from Zipporah's home culture to Moses' will change who is the "foreign" spouse. Did Zipporah know what her family was getting into? Probably, when you consider what she seems to know in the story that follows.

The Bridegroom of Blood
They are on the road when the most substantial paragraph we have in the Bible about Zipporah occurs. Moses is already gearing up for his task of confronting Pharaoh, hearing a message from God that reminds him of what he must do in Egypt. Immediately after God speaks to Moses, we have this strange story, which I will transcribe fully, because it is short, and odd enough that we should remember exactly what happens: 

At a lodging place on the way the Lord met him and sought to put him to death.  Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son's foreskin and touched Moses' feet with it and said, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” So he let him alone. It was then that she said, “A bridegroom of blood,” because of the circumcision.

This is another story that is so confusing to me that I did some extra googling to see if real theologians know what to do with it. Unfortunately, they don't. That doesn't make it easier, but it does give us more free reign to try to figure it out! 

Here is my take. One main problem with understanding the story is that we don't know who the "him" refers to in the first sentence, whom God sought to kill. Moses? Pharaoh's son, who has been mentioned in the previous sentence? Moses' son? My guess is that the "him" is Gershom, Moses' son--that along the way Gershom's life was endangered at the hand of God. Here's why.

The death of the firstborn of Pharaoh is mentioned in God's message to Moses which immediately precedes this. The death of Pharaoh's firstborn is contrasted with the rescue of God's firstborn, Israel. But which household does Moses' firstborn belong to? Pharaoh's household or God's? The question seems open based on Moses life story. In seeking the death of uncircumcised Gershom, maybe God was pushing Moses toward full identification with Israel, reminding him of what would happen to the children of Egypt.

Moses had been living as a foreigner away from his people, and had obviously not circumcised his son yet. But in light of Moses' calling, their family identity with the Jews would need to be complete. Perhaps at home in Midian, Zipporah had not felt the urgency to abide by this foreign custom, even if Moses may have mentioned it to her. But with their purpose clear, and her son's life on the line, Zipporah begins to realize what her marriage to Moses will mean for their family. They must all fully join God's people, and circumcision is necessary to establish this. She circumcises Gershom, throws the foreskin (ugh, so weird to be talking about foreskins!) at Moses, and in distress mixed with resignation, calls him a bridegroom of blood. Strange that the text gives us an explanatory note here that Zipporah's exclamation had to do with the circumcision, but leaves so much else unclear. 

What I think is clear is that Zipporah is upset over the bloodiness and injury her son must experience, but grudgingly understands what is necessary. In this take on the story, we are, admittedly, guessing about who's life was in danger. But whoever it was, Zipporah seems less worried about the mortal danger and thankful for having avoided it, than upset by the circumcision. This is a clue to me that this identification with God's people is a main issue here. Zipporah is the person who would struggle with it most, out of their family of three. Returning with Moses into Egypt would have brought this family identity issue to a crisis, and I think that's what the story is about.

Before we move on, let's note that here again in Exodus, we see the supreme importance to life of bearing children, in that the ultimate plague and worst punishment imaginable for the Egyptians is the death of a child.

The separation
Before studying Zipporah this time, I had never noticed how little Moses' family factors into his life once he returns to Egypt, and thereafter. But the text after this story turns completely to Moses, Pharaoh, the plagues, the passover, all the major themes of the Exodus. The next time we hear anything about Zipporah and her sons, they are coming back with her father Jethro, because, whoops, Exodus forgot to tell us that "Earlier, Moses had sent his wife, Zipporah, and his two sons back to Jethro, who had taken them in." It's mentioned as an aside to explain why the family is visiting, and you can't really tell when it happened. 

Why did Moses and Zipporah separate? I'm really dying for a little more detail about their family life after leaving Midian. So let's try to reconstruct a bit. In the last story we have about Zipporah, she appears upset with Moses about the circumcision, which was only the beginning of her passage into Hebrew life. If the circumcision was a problem for her, that she would bear, but with some distress, how will she handle becoming part of an enslaved group of people, and watching Egypt suffer under all the plagues? Could Moses have "sent her back" to Jethro for her safety and peace of mind? Maybe. 

With Moses taking on the mantle of his role as the leader of God's people out of Egypt, their marriage and family life would surely have been affected. He transitioned from a shepherd to a  prophet, miracle worker, and head of state. We can imagine how the family of the president of the United States must completely sacrifice their claim on him while he is in office, and this is probably a fair parallel to what Moses' family had to do. But while Moses was consumed with his work, Zipporah would have lacked other support. She was among complete strangers in Egypt. If Moses was a foreigner in Midian, now Zipporah is one in Egypt, but without the fellowship of a spouse, or her extended family. Maybe that's why it made sense for her to go back. 

You could also interpret it as Moses "going off to war" and arranging for the safety of his family. Given the intensity of his task, that would also make sense.

Jethro brings his daughter and grandsons back to visit Moses, after he hears of the great success of the Exodus. Between the lines, I detect signals that Jethro is really wishing to reunite Zipporah with Moses. He comes with Moses' family, encouraging him and rejoicing with him over what he has achieved. But he also watches Moses and makes some helpful suggestions for how Moses can delegate work to have more time . . . for his family, perhaps? Moses takes this advice well, and implements Jethro's advice. At the end of the visit, "he went away to his own country," but there is no mention of Zipporah and the boys. Did they stay?

I don't see any evidence that Zipporah goes back home with Jethro, but neither is there any hint of her being around afterward. I guess it's possible that they enjoyed a supportive and warm home life, which Moses just did not think was important to mention in the rest of the Torah. I would love to go with that, though I wish we had more evidence for Zipporah not being left behind with her loving father while Moses abandoned her for his holy career. 

It's not clear. But they are not in the story again except for a brief mention years later when Aaron and Miriam find fault with Moses for marrying a Cushite woman. That critique seems a bit random in it's context to me. Check it out and see if you have any insight yourself: Numbers 12:1. My only guess is that this is the cultural identity issue coming up again? That maybe they are astonishingly doubting Moses' Hebrew credentials if his wife is a foreigner?

The episode is worth considering with reference to Zipporah, because God comes to Moses' defense, saying to Aaron and Miriam, "Of all my house, he is the one I trust. I speak to him face to face, clearly, and not in riddles. He sees the Lord as he is." The point is that God is clearly pleased with Moses' relationship with him. This question about his marriage is answered by God's pleasure in his unique relationship with Moses. God is saying that his marriage to Zipporah does not count against him in any way. 

One other option we haven't mentioned yet is that perhaps Zipporah just never could fully identify with Moses' people, that the cultural differences were too much, and she wanted to be back at home. Could she have abandoned Moses? An argument against this is that in 1 Chronicles Gershom and Eliezer are referred to as family leaders, so they it seems like they must have been living with the Israelite community. But I was not able to find any information about children they had or anything else.

Ultimately, we can imagine two main versions of Zipporah's life: either she tried to integrate with Israel, or she didn't. If she didn't, she would have been the responsible party for the distance in their marriage. If that scenario is true, that Zipporah went back home because life with her holy husband was too difficult, it's easier to understand. We expect God to be in the corner of people who are abandoned by their spouses. But I think we have a little more of a challenge understanding this marriage, because we know Moses "sent them home" himself, initially, and that his sons are later involved with the Israelite community as leaders. So to me it seems a little more likely that Zipporah was there, but that after Midian, she just didn't figure strongly into Moses life, which was dominated by his work and his relationships with God. Adding to the challenge, we know that God was pleased with Moses' work and relationship with God, though it kept him from involvement with his family, and his wife, who must have really needed him in the foreign culture he brought her into.

There are a lot of words on the cutting floor for this post. I would love to tie a bow around the the story of Moses and Zipporah's relationship, but we just don't have enough information about in the text to even know exactly what we are looking at. My mom points out that it's so biblical that we get a fairly sparse account that focuses on particular events, and leaves out backstory we are left scratching our heads over.

We should also keep in mind that according to tradition, Moses is the author of all of the Bible we have read so far. Maybe he doesn't want to detail his private home life and marriage details. We did have more to work with in the other families he wrote about in Genesis. But here he focuses on what God was doing for the Israelites at large. For him, Zipporah figures in to the story when he meets her in exile, and then when they establish their family identity as firmly Hebrew. That's the important part of her story for the purposes of Exodus. Though we do have the fact that they have separated for a while, which hints at some possible trouble in their marriage, that part isn't even totally clear. I would love to understand more of her life and experience, but it seems Zipporah must remain a bit foreign to us.

  • Moses and Zipporah faced a challenge uniting in culture and purpose after Moses' call to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.
  • We know they separated for a while, but we don't know why, or even whether or not they reunited. 
  • Zipporah does not seem to figure into the most important parts of Moses' life.
  • God is pleased with Moses' life, whatever was happening in his marriage.
  • What do you think is the best explanation of Moses and Zipporah's relationship? Do you think Zipporah was left behind by Moses or the other way around? Did she live with Moses after Jethro's visit?
  • What is the best way to deal with the given difference in priorities between husbands and wives, to have the most happy and satisfying marriage for both parties?
  • Is there any chance God was happy for Moses and Zipporah to separate and for him to throw himself into his career and for her to live with her parents? That doesn't sit right with me . . . 

Friday, March 1, 2019

Infanticide and women helping women (Ex 1:15-2:20)

From Potiphar's wife, the categorical villainess, we move right along to the book of Exodus and our first unmitigated heroines, the Hebrew midwives, Shiprah and Puah. When we left off in Genesis, the Israelites had just arrived in Egypt at Pharaoh's invitation. The last 10 chapters or so of Genesis, though they feature a few women, are mostly about Joseph and his father and brothers and how God blesses them with the favor and wealth of Egypt. Important stories in God's plan, but not specifically useful for looking at what God has to say about women. But when Exodus opens, we are greeted by some truly incredible women handing awful circumstances with the courage, faith, compassion, and grit.

However, to set the stage for their stories, we do need the larger context of what is going on with God's people at large. The Israelites arrived in Egypt in honor, which was afterward forgotten and replaced with persecution, oppression and enslavement.

The story of the Exodus has been treasured by oppressed people throughout history. Reading the part of the story we are focusing on, parallels between the plight of the Israelites and enslaved African Americans are plain, but I noticed a new similarity this time. The obvious parallel is that both groups are enslaved and oppressed, and feared because they are becoming too numerous. In the United States, as time has passed, some liberation for African enslaved people has been gained. But another similarity between these two people groups that was particularly salient for me at this cultural moment, and in thinking about the part women play in the story, involves the solution Pharaoh proposes to control the group he wants to oppress. This is where the Hebrew midwives, Shiprah and Puah, come in. Pharaoh tells them to kill the Hebrew baby boys as they are being born. “When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.”

The concept that made this parallel jump out to me was "infanticide," which we have horrifyingly found in our headlines lately, around the national discussion of what we will allow when we permit abortion. Infanticide is the horrible extreme of the permission given to mothers to end the early lives of babies who would burden them. Pharaoh is clearly barbaric for ordering the murder of born-alive babies whose mothers want them to live. But there is some overlap in strategy between his plan and the historic racist eugenics movement, which has its current iteration in clinics in offering abortions to African Americans at a much higher rate than the rest of the population (some key statistics can be found on this page). The root idea employed there is the same--to manage an oppressed people by lessening their numbers, through keeping their offspring from living.

Women helping women
In our modern conversation, this topic appears much more complex, because abortion is linked to the idea of helping women avoid the loss of power and agency that happens to them when they bear children. Women are asked to participate in the decision to kill their babies, and encouraged that though the decision is difficult, it will be better for everyone if there are less dependents to care for. In one light, abortion is seen as a strategy that women must fight to make available, to help each other, despite it's terrible nature. Women who want to help other women often want to preserve the right to use it, with the idea that it will help some people, closing their eyes to the even more innocent people who it destroys. But can we really call this women helping women?

The way this "parallel" works when it come to the women in the story is actually not as a parallel, but a contrast in how women have seen their own flourishing and needs in biblical history versus our own moment. In ancient Egypt as well as 18th century America, there were similar conflicts between oppressive governments and enslaved people. Pharaoh relied on his evil authority to kill the baby boys among his slaves to keep them down, where as Margaret Sanger and her crew turned to the idea of eugenics for similar reasons. But the women upon whom the strategies were implemented reacted in very different ways then and now.

When it comes to Shiprah and Puah, the brave Hebrew midwives, we have a different dynamic of women helping women than what is offered in abortion clinics. In order to help their fellow women, the midwives defied, not an obvious moral standard, but rather the decree of an evil king. The reason they did not kill the Hebrew baby boys was because "they feared God." This is a sound way of choosing between right and wrong and determining a course of action in a difficult situation. Their fear of God led them to a reverence for the lives of the new people he was bringing into the world. They understood the miracle and blessing of new life, and they had too much fear of God to be able to listen to Pharaoh and commit murder.

What kind of blessing?
Verse 20 tells us that because of Shiprah and Puah's fear of God, God was kind to them, the people continued to increase, and in my favorite detail, "because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own." Mark down another instance of God rewarding women by blessing them with the gift and holy task of bearing children. I love that the reward comes to them because they helped babies live and helped mothers keep their children, and that the reward is for them to also have children. This is a banner story for women as mothers, and as helpers of mothers. We can so clearly see God's favor on these roles for women who fear him.

Contrast this picture of blessing for women and the one we often maintain in this century: women as self-sufficient, unencumbered by the heavy work of bearing and caring for children, empowered to pursue any agenda without thought for this aspect of their lives. The two ideas are very different. We have lost the understanding that children and motherhood are at the heart of some of the greatest purposes and blessings for women. This devaluing of our feminine humanity has lead to terrible consequences. When motherhood is a hindrance that we need to dispense with in order to live fully, it is not a big jump to see actual children as hindrances that need to be dispensed with. But this is a great and tragic error. Its consequences keep women from the most fulfilling (though surely also the most costly and demanding) parts of life, and encourage them to commit murder to avoid experiencing them. To the babies themselves, the error denies the blessing of life.

For modern mothers, even if we believe that abortion is wrong, it's worth looking at our assessments of our lives and asking which kind of blessing we are valuing more heavily? Are our goals in life encumbered by our care for our children, or vice versa? What will the result be of our struggle to "have it all"? Can we win it? If we have to land on one side or another, which side will we land on?

Though we have been really emphasizing the privilege and goodness of motherhood for women here, there is another beautiful piece of this story for women who are not mothers. Shiprah and Puah only receive their reward of having families at the end of their part in it. In their work supporting women and families, they are full participants and heroines in God's plan. Motherhood is not required for a meaningful and influential life as a woman in God's sight, though it may become a reward from him, for women who bravely and faithfully live in holy fear of him. The midwives are single ladies, and fully serving God in that role.

I drew him out of the water
Moving on in the story--tragically, Pharaoh will not be completely outwitted by the Hebrew midwives. His next step goes further than subtly making it look like the baby boys are being born dead. To ensure that live baby boys are not allowed to live, he orders them to be thrown into the Nile.

Moses' mother and sister are the next two brave, God-fearing women we meet in this section. His mother is in a terrible situation where she cannot legally provide for her son. Horribly, Pharaoh has instructed "all his people" to throw the Hebrew baby boys into the Nile. Moses is in terrible danger from which his mother can't save him. But she does what she can to help him survive. Technically she does put Moses into the Nile, but she sets him in a little basket boat, nestled in the reeds, and sends his sister to watch over him. It's hard to imagine being in this horrible position as a mother. Perhaps she was planning to just keep him in the basket "in the Nile" and continue to care for him there? That would have been an ingenious solution if you ask me.

But this desperate mother receives help when it is desperately needed. Pharoah's daughter hears the baby crying, understands his plight, and decides to take care of him. Moses' sister Miriam cleverly inserts herself into the situation, offering to find a Hebrew woman to nurse the baby. I just wonder if they are all aware of what is going on here, if Pharaoh's daughter understands how Miriam and the "Hebrew woman" are related to Moses. I like to think so. Pharaoh's daughter "adopts" Moses to save him, but then brings his mother along, keeping her in the picture and supporting her to allow her to care for her son. This is an incredibly beautiful picture of how women can truly help and encourage each other. It is a stark contrast from women helping each other to abandon and kill their babies to make a better life for themselves. Rather these women are helping each other provide for babies, sharing the burden in really difficult and dangerous circumstances. God is deeply involved with them, unfolding his plan to save the whole nation of his people. They have a role of honor, bravery, and privilege both trusting him in their lack of power, and using what power they have to save life, and mother together.

At this part of the story we can discuss another component of the abortion issue. Openness to adoption is the obvious required corollary to a pro-life stance. But adoption is also critiqued sometimes as a means for babies to be taken from families who can't support them and effectively bought by wealthy families of the dominant culture who then assimilate the children into that culture, robbing them of their cultural identity, and robbing other communities and families of their youth.

Because it can be so difficult, open-adoption, where biological parents maintain contact with children who are adopted by other families, is often avoided. But here we have a different perspective, where a whole family is adopted and supported through the resources of a wealthy, concerned woman. Maybe this is a better way? Pharaoh's daughter names the baby Moses- "I drew him out of the water." What if Christian women with power and resources everywhere listened for those crying babies in trouble, drew them from the water, and then found their mothers to help them and bring them along too? The application seems obvious, though it's much easier to write about than to actually do.

These stories read to me like a ballad of honorable women: Shiprah and Puah, Moses' mother, Miriam, Pharaoh's daughter, all heroines. What a delightful place to stop and think about women in God's plan.

  • Pharaoh's plan to kill the Hebrew baby boys is a prefiguration of the racist policy of selectively offering abortion for African Americans more than other races. Both attack babies to oppress a population.
  • God shows his favor to women by giving them children again in this story.
  • The heroic action of the midwives, Moses' mother and sister, and Pharaoh's daughter are a key component of God's plan to bring his people out of Egypt.
  • God provides for Moses' mother when a wealthy, powerful woman intervenes and supports their family as a unit.
  • Did Pharaoh's daughter know who Miriam and the "Hebrew woman" were?
  • If you are a mother, do you honestly see yourself as more blessed or burdened by your children? Probably a combination, right?
  • What exactly is the current way to find families with babies in the reeds and help them?