Tuesday, September 1, 2020

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

Low Angle Photo of Coconut Trees

Welcome to Judges!

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

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

What we learn about women

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

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

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

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

What I'm wondering

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

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

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

Acsah and Othniel and the wedding gift

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

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

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

God's victory at the hands of Deborah and Jael

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

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

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

White and Brown Lighted Cabin Tent at Woods

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

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

Deborah's Song

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Rahab's Rescue (Joshua 2-6)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

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

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

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

Threads in the Tapestry

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zelophehad's daughters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contingent vows

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

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

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


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

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.