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. 

Monday, June 15, 2020

Purity Culture: marriage and sex in the Law (passages in Ex through Deut)

"Purity culture" is the name given to the facet of evangelicalism that encourages sexual purity in the form of modesty, boundaries for sexual activity before marriage, and particularly abstinence before marriage. Joshua Harris's book, "I Kissed Dating Goodbye" is probably the banner piece of culture from this movement which also included purity rings. Many look back on it and point out its damaging effects, particularly on women who felt guilty for not maintaining their purity. I'm not sure exactly what to think about it. It makes sense to me that we should preserve the specialness of sex within marriage. As far as condemning women as worthless if they have sex without being married while giving men a complete pass and even honor for their extramarital exploits, that's obviously completely wrong. But using our common sense, we can see why the stakes for women who have sex outside of marriage are so infinitely much higher than they are for men. Perhaps without saying so, people want to use the idea of purity for women as a tool for their safety against irresponsible men who would love them and leave them. But if that doesn't work, other protective mechanisms must step in and help, not exploit and condemn. So much for purity culture musings. Israelite culture fully subscribed to it under the law. 

What we learn about women
  • Marriage and sex are really closely related here, almost equated. Marriage is the only context where sex can happen, and marriage is prescribed as a solution if eligible people are caught doing it.
  • Incest is forbidden, along with homosexuality, prostitution, and bestiality. Polygamy is not.
  • Generally the laws follow the "two to tango" pattern, both parties are guilty.
  • Punishments are harsh for sexual misbehavior, it's most often punished by death.
  • Divorce is allowed, it can be initiated by men.
What I'm wondering
  • Why is there so much more emphasis on women's virginity here than on men's? Why no tests for men's virginity or faithfulness?
  • Why are the punishments for sexual sin so harsh?
  • Given women's clearly weaker position in society, why are so many of the laws set against them in favor of men?
  • Knowing God intends sex and marriage to go together completely, should purity culture have a place in modern Christianity?
The Rules
 There are a lot of laws having to do with marriage and sex in Exodus through Deuteronomy. As usual, they are scattered and not super-organized, so I'll do my best to talk through them in a thematic way. Overall, I think the main patterns are that marriage must be absolutely pure, partners can't be family, but they also can't be foreigners, and that women are in their culturally typical dependent position in the arrangement.

There is a detailed list in chapter 18 of Leviticus of who a man cannot have sex with. As always, the laws are written by and for men, since women are too busy with their kids and their nests to read or write. Also, most men are too busy with their farms and their military service. The first line is "You must never have sexual relations with a close relative, for I am the Lord." And then it goes on to spell out who all that entails. Plus there are instructions not to have sex with a woman during her period or with other men, or animals. Also the helpful advice, maybe passed down directly from Israel himself who was husband of both Rachel and Leah, "While your wife is living, do not marry her sister and have sexual relations with her, for they would be rivals."

The rules and consequences are directed toward men, women aren't directly addressed, but they are included in the punishments for sin. When it comes to rape, there are specific guidelines for whether women consented and were therefore guilty or not. Punishments for many of these sins are given in chapter 20 and they are mostly death sentences for both parties. Modern readers find this level of punishment clearly ludicrous and unjust. I'll try to make sense of that later in the post. But marrying a sister  only means the couple must be cut off from society (Abraham and Sarah were in this situation). The same punishment happens to a couple who has sex during a menstrual period. Other not so close relatives who become sexual partners bring about disgrace and childlessness. For priests there are more restrictive rules about who they can marry, and who their daughters can marry. Men and women dressing in each other's clothes is also prohibited.

These laws and punishments are linked closely with the idea that Israel must be set apart and different from the other nations they are driving out of the land, who do all these things. But there is the possibility that if Israel sins in this way, the land will "vomit them out" too. Gross. In Deuteronomy 27, similar rules are understood in the curses given on Mount Ebal for those who do not obey God's laws. There are 12 curses that specify different varieties of disobedience, like not honoring father and mother, making idols, and leading a blind person astray. But four of them, a full third, refer to specific types of sexual sin. Three out of those four specify incestual relationships (the other one prohibits bestiality).

One interesting way to think about this is to compare the rules about sex in the law with our modern take. The law places the greatest emphasis on avoiding incest, followed by bestiality, then homosexuality. Polygamy is never mentioned as a problem though. Our modern rules would probably also say that incest and bestiality are the worst kind of sexual problems. It think for us polygamy and homosexuality switch though. We don't talk about polygamy much, but it's obvious to us that it is really wrong, so much so that only people on the fringes of society would consider it. Homosexuality may be a bit inconvenient because of reproductive differences, and prejudice against it, but basically we are fine with it. I would imagine in ancient times homosexuality would have been obviously wrong and at the fringes, while polygamy would have been possibly inconvenient due to rival wives, but basically accepted as no big deal. I just wanted to note that to remind us that our own heebie jeebies about sex may not come from infallible intuitions about right and wrong in these relationships, but from our culture. But is there an infallible right and wrong here? Christians who believe in ultimate right and wrong generally should look for it here, as everywhere. If you think it's all up for discussion, probably you will just land where things feel right to you, based on what your culture is.

Distilled Women
When it comes to infidelity and divorce, we find the most emphatic differences in requirements for men and women about marriage. The requirement of purity for women is absolute. The only places it is mentioned for men (that I can find) is in the tenth commandment, that they may not covet their neighbors wives, and in the commands against paying for sex with prostitutes. But purity for women in marriage is huge, illustrated by three texts.

First of all, in Numbers 5, there is a test for unfaithfulness a woman must undergo if her husband suspects her of infidelity, even if he has absolutely no evidence. To me, it is reminiscent of tests for witches from the 17th century, but that probably goes the other way, that they copied from Numbers! She has to drink a potion made of muddy water from the temple floor (temple floors must have been gross, right? All the blood from animal sacrifice!). If she's guilty the water should make her infertile, but if innocent it won't harm her. There is no mention of even the occurrence of a situation where a woman would suspect her husband. But in general, aren't men the ones more likely to cheat? And women more likely to suffer in that situation?

In Deuteronomy 22, a woman's virginity at the time of her marriage can be proven by blood on the sheets of the marital bed, if her husband doubts her. If the husband accuses falsely, he is fined for falsely accusing the woman, and may never divorce her. If he was right according to the sheets, the woman is stoned to death.

A third interesting mention of the importance of a woman's purity comes in Deuteronomy 23. If a woman has been divorced by her husband, and remarries, she cannot remarry her first husband again if the second one divorces her or dies, because she is defiled.

These passages seem to show that despite the law being generally addressed to men as its readers, surprisingly, women are really held accountable for their virginity and purity within marriage more than men are. This is confusing to me. It seems that if the general pattern of the strong helping the weak is to be in place, the men should be the ones we really enforce these laws on. They may have no other consequence of sexual misbehavior in their lives, where women have every motivation to avoid the natural consequences of sex outside of marriage.

Divorce is only mentioned as being initiated by men. It's description is heart-breaking, "Suppose a man marries a woman but she does not please him. Having discovered something wrong with her, he writes her a letter of divorce, hands it to her, and sends her away from his house." (Deut 24:1) Doesn't this feel so foreign to our modern American way of thinking about relationships? I'm sure this hierarchical authoritative structure of marriage is not uncommon in the modern world generally, but it feels so cold and cruel here. I think this is a pretty dire characterization of a marriage gone wrong, even for the Bible though. We have the Song of Solomon! And Ruth and Boaz! Hopefully this was a desperate measure for desperate times, one that was not offered to women because they couldn't read or study, because hardly anyone had time to--especially busy mothers, and therefore the law was not written for them? Maybe.

Sex and worship
One more topic to bring in before we try to pull this together and make some sense of it generally. We recently discussed laws about wives taken from among prisoners of war. This situation is legalized in the Torah. But in Numbers 25 we find an episode of Israelite men being seduced by Moabite women and coming under God's judgment. This at first struck me as a bit of a contradiction, but on closer reading, it seems like the crucial factor was that the sex went along with joining the women in worship of Baal. It makes sense that God would take great offense at that kind of sexual behavior. Temple prostitutes and sex-related stuff generally seems to often find its way into pagan religions. This combination is a double sin, and God takes it so seriously that the men involved with Moabite women and Baal worship are executed "in broad daylight." A rather horrifying detail of the event is that a couple composed of Zimri, a son of a family leader from Simeon's tribe, and Cozbi, the daughter of a Moabite leader are caught in the act at just the moment when God's judgment of the whole situation is apparent. They are speared, together. The names just make it that much more intense.

Washed by the cleansing of God's word
So purity, for Israel as a nation in worship of God alone, and sexual purity within marriage, specifically for women, is a big big deal in the law. We've accumulated quite a list of questions in observing these passages. Though we are going through the Bible starting in the Old Testament, Christians need to read it all in light of what Jesus has revealed in the New. Here I think we've got to go to our prime marriage passage in Ephesians to get the needed context. Here's 5:25, "For husbands, this means love your wives just as Christ loved the church. He gave up his life for her to make her whole and clean, washed by the cleansing of God's word. He did this to present her to himself as a glorious church without a spot or wrinkle or any other blemish. Instead she will be holy and without fault."

The Church as the bride of Christ is a common image in the New Testament, and some places in the old (Hosea and Ezekiel for instance). The Old Testament does not mince any words or ideas about the seriousness of sin in general and God's judgment of it. The New Testament reveals how our impossible task of pleasing God can be accomplished through Christ. If marriage at large is a symbol of God's people united to him in marriage, this goes a long way toward explaining why the ideal of marriage is set at such a high standard, and also why the purity of the wife (the people) is such a big deal. A woman who is impure or unfaithful pretty much gets death, as do God's people who are in sin. But Christ purifies us from our sin, and he purifies his wife too. Ideal religion is participated in by perfect people, ideal marriage involves a perfectly pure wife. Under the OT law, both sinful people in general and impure wives suffer for their faults.

As far as the practical consequences of unfaithfulness and impurity for women, that they may bear children without a father, this could parallel the way people in general, and the fruit of their sin and idolatry, become alienated from their Father in heaven because of their sin.

Now. That holds water for me symbolically. But in specific cases of broken marriages, and specific women who have sex outside of a safe marriage and suffer for it, Christ's mercy should apply. How it went in Israel I'm not sure. I hope mercy was offered to unfaithful women, as it was to all unfaithful people again and again, despite the high standards of the law. I think there's hope that this was true when we consider what we noted above, that Abraham married his sister, and that Israel married women who were sisters, both of which are forbidden in Leviticus. This is a model for at least showing men mercy!

Knowing what we do know now about Christ's love for his people and his deep desire to purify us, I think we can hold to a high standard of sexual purity, with a standing offer of mercy to those who haven't met it. I'm not going to throw purity culture out with the bathwater, I guess. We just need to apply it in the context of New Testament redemption which surpasses Old Testament righteous judgement.