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.