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Women In The Pentateuch Essay, Research Paper

Societies in the ancient Near East were of the patriarchal type. Israel no less than other nations was a patriarchal society. Characteristic in those societies was the lower status of women. The basic social and economic unit for Hebrew society was the family, headed by the father it was called beith-ab, literally, the fathers home . The federation, as a whole was organised around male heads of families. In turn, the religious community consisted of circumcised males. This community shaped the laws that aimed to preserve the principles of the family; the male headed family. Laws protected the man s rights and rarely those of his dependants. The tenth commandment with the you and your neighbour : both men, protecting each other s property: house, wife, servants and animals (Ex. 20:17), portrays women as objects. The other laws sometimes gave women and men equal treatment. Laws declared that all human life is sacred. Mothers and fathers could not be hit or cursed and generation took precedent over gender. Other cases show clear inequality: a man servant is set free after seven years a woman servant is not.

In this society, the primary role for women was child bearing. In the Pentateuch to be a woman portrayed in a positive light, she would have to be a wife or a virgin. If a bride was not a virgin, she would be executed. A woman did assume role of leader, only to have it overshadowed by her male counterparts. If a married woman committed the act of adultery, it was punishable by death. The same act committed by a man was not a crime unless he committed it with a married woman. Moreover, divorce was a male prerogative . Yet despite Israel s overwhelming androcentric and patriarchal orientation there were women in the Pentateuch that emerged to testify of the essential and active role that women played in the formation of Israel.

Property was passed down from father to son, women did not normally inherit land. The exception was made because of a precedent set by five sisters, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah (Num 27:1-11, 36:1-12). These five audacious sisters stood before the entire assembly and declared the injustice of the system of inheritance. Asserting that they should not suffer discrimination based on gender, they claimed a right to their father s land. Astonishingly they won, and legal property rights were granted under certain circumstances. The new inheritance law was not the end of patrilineality : as it did treat women as placeholders, who in the absence of sons would

bridge the gap until her sons could resume the paternal line. The prerequisite that the daughter marry only within her father s tribe insured this paternal legacy (Num 36:6-9). However, it was a very progressive move towards gender justice and alleviated the pressure that was on women to produce sons in order for their husbands to have heirs.

Women in Pentateuchal Israel were considered property, first of their fathers then of their husbands. Woman like Sarai and the daughters of Lot, were readily handed over to safeguard men. The violation of a womans body was of little concern compared to a mans safety. Lot, seemingly without reluctance, was willing to offer up his virgin daughters to protect two male strangers: “See now, I have two daughters who have not known a man; please, let me bring them out to you, and you may do to them as you wish; only do nothing to these men, since this is the reason they have come under the shadow of my roof”(Gen 19:8). Likewise, Sarai is abandoned, first to Pharaoh, then to Abimelech to protect Abraham. In Genesis 20:13 Abraham says “‘This is your kindness that you should do for me: in every place, wherever we go, say of me, “He is my brother.”‘ Sarai, typical of all women, was expected to be submissive to her husband. This kindness placed Sarai in a very vulnerable and terrifying position. Centuries later patriarchal men praised Sarai: the holy women who trusted in God also adorned themselves, being submissive to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, whose daughters you are if you do good and are not afraid with any terror . (1 Peter 3:5-6)

The woman s fundamental role of wife and mother meant that the worth of women was judged by their capacity to produce heirs for her husband. Motherhood was expected and honoured . The desire to have many children, especially sons was strong, despite the dangers of childbirth. This demand for children was rewarded with security and prestige (Deut 5:16, 27:16). Barrenness was viewed as the ultimate disgrace and a sign of divine disfavour, always the fault of the woman. Sarai, Rebekah and Rachel were all at one stage barren. The stories of Sarai and Hagar and of Rachel and Leah, consequently, portray women whose society equates children with status (Gen 30:20). This identification forced women to be actors in terrible scripts that see themselves set at enmity with each other (Gen 16:4) and become rivals in child-bearing (Gen 30:1-24).

The lives of other innocent women are drawn into this complicated calamity of sex and family. Leah, Rachel, and their maids Bilhah and Zilpah, Hagar and Sarai all suffered as a result of the patriarchy that surrounded them. Hagar, Sarai s Egyptian slave has

no say in the decision to have her body used in surrogate motherhood. Hagar becomes exploited on the basis of gender, class and race. On conception of Abraham s child, Hagar s status rises and her scorn is turned towards Sarai. Rather than becoming allies against the system that keeps them both enslaved, they become rivals. Fortunately God does not discriminate by race, class or gender, Hagar the homeless, single mother, cast off wife and exploited worker becomes the first person in the bible to receive a divine messenger and the only one who dared to give God a name Elroi the God who hears . Hagar is the first woman who receives a divine promise of descendants and the first woman in historical Israel (excluding Gen 1-11) to bear a child and her child does become the father of a great nation .

Leviticus lays out strict laws that addressed purity, these laws made women live not only living from childbirth to childbirth but also from month to month. ‘If a woman has a discharge, and the discharge from her body is blood, she shall be set apart seven days; and whoever touches her shall be unclean until evening. 20 ‘Everything that she lies on during her impurity shall be unclean; also everything that she sits on shall be unclean. 21 ‘Whoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes and bathe in water, and be unclean until evening. 22 ‘And whoever touches anything that she sat on shall wash his clothes and bathe in water, and be unclean until evening. 23 ‘If anything is on her bed or on anything on which she sits, when he touches it, he shall be unclean until evening. (Leviticus 15:19-23) these two verses stigmatised and confined women. Israel revered blood in religious ritual but otherwise blood was a source of contamination. Women were considered unclean, untouchable, and aberrant as humans. Because of this uncleanness women were regularly denied access to the temple. This blood taboo outlined in Leviticus was cornerstone of Jewish patriarchal society. Rachel used these laws to take control of her destiny (Gen 31). Before leaving her father, Rachel steals the family gods. Understanding the Levitical purity codes she guards the gods by claiming that she could not get up from her camel because the way of women was upon her (Gen 31:34). This threat of uncleanness was enough to deter Laben from searching her camel. Nunnally- Cox believes that by taking the gods, she takes the power of leadership into her own hands . Rachel took the power of an oppressive taboo and turned it for her own gain.

In Exodus the most important story in the Hebrew Bible is told; the story of Moses. This story begins with five heroic, strong women determining the events. The midwives Shiphrah and Puah, Jochebed, Miriam and Pharaoh s daughter all defy the unnamed Pharaoh. These women all appear in their own right, and not primarily because of their

relationships to male figures. Yet, the focus of all these women s acts of bravery is on the Patriarch. His story overshadows their acts of valour, which ensured his rise to power . Possibly, the bravery and survival skills these women, developed under such harsh rule was due to the fact that [as women in a patriarchal society] they had always experienced some degree of oppression in their lives.

Miriam who is advantageous in saving her brother, disappears, then remerges after the exodus to sing what is frequently believed to be her song of Triumph, which is commonly attributed to Moses (Ex.15). In Exodus 15:20 Miriam becomes the first person in the Bible to be called a prophet. Miriam was a leader in the wilderness equal to Aaron and Moses. Trible agrees with this equal trinitarian leadership position and quotes Micah 6:4 as an evidence : For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, I redeemed you from the house of bondage; And I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. Thus, both the beginning and end of the exodus story belong to women. Miriam, Moses sister, has an important role to play in both parts of the story.

In considering these few women, a picture is drawn of women who suffered in one way or another from the strictures of a patriarchal society. The Pentateuch is full of stories of pitiable women who become cruel to each other in order to survive. Stories of rape or near rape that are maddening. When the tempo changes to tellings of courage and bravery the goal is still the survival of a male hero. Did the Daughters of Zelophehad advance women s rights or were they mere placeholders in a patrilineal inheritance scheme? Miriam was of equal stature with Moses and Aaron, but Moses fame still surpasses hers and her song is credited to him. All these could be examples of powerlessness and the low status of women under patriarchy. Alternatively, they could be examples of women who had little power and accomplished important gaols in spite of powerlessness.


Bible, (1984) New International Version, International Bible Society

Zondervan Publishers, USA.

Freedman D.N. Editor. The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Volume 6

Doubleday, New York.

Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. Forgotten Heroines: The Exclusion of Women from Moses Vision. Bible Review, December 1997:41

LaCocque, Andre.(1990) The Feminine Unconventional

Fortress Press, Minneapolis.

Ogden Bellis, Alice.(1994) Helpmates Harlots Heros: Women s Stories in the Hebrew Bible. Westminister/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky.

Trible, Phyllis. (1984) Texts of Terror :Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives

Fortress Press, Philadelphia.

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