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. 

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