Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Women in the Old Testament

Why were the lives of Old Testament women so wildly different from those of women today?

If you have never studied history in any serious depth, you might be forgiven for thinking that some of things that went on ancient Israelite households were absolutely barbaric, that wives and daughters were horribly oppressed, lacked agency, were regarded as mere chattel, and lived lives of virtual slavery.

Careful attention to the text of the Old Testament shows this was rarely the case.

If we look only at the conditions within ancient Middle Eastern households and try to draw conclusions about their morality without paying some serious attention to the external circumstances in which these people were obliged to live, we are bound to think their customs bizarre and their values primitive.

In fact, family dynamics in the OT were a logical and necessary response to the hazards of daily living in an era where violence was common and predation was the order of the day.

Somebody Else’s Stuff

If you are unscrupulous, it is almost always way easier to just help yourself to somebody else’s stuff than to earn it, buy it or grow your own. This has been the case throughout human history. Our century and half of the previous one have been exceptional in that regard.

The Hebrew word pashat means “to strip” or “to skin”, taking a victim down to his bare essence. It is also used metaphorically to describe what happens when a group of bandits or soldiers attacks a village, city or nation — a raid, basically. It is used fourteen times in the period between Israel first taking possession of Canaan and the Judean captivity, a period of about 800 years, to describe situations like the following:
Everyone at Everyone Else’s Throats

During most of this 800 year period in Israel, as well as in most of the nations surrounding it, you could not be sure from day to day of being on good terms with even the city down the road, let alone with neighboring tribes or nations. The fact that you may have had a king over you in Jerusalem or Gibeah or Samaria meant next to nothing to people looking to prey on you. Chances are that even if a king or chieftain wanted to respond in force to news of a recent raid, he would have some difficulty determining who was actually responsible, and plenty of difficulty getting troops where they were needed in a timely manner. Even then, his soldiers were only avenging an insult to royalty, not defending you. It was way too late for that.

Basically, if someone with a sword and evil intentions decided you had something they wanted, and that it was easy enough to get at, they simply came and killed you. When they did, they either exterminated your women and children or took them to be their slaves, concubines and wives. Depending on how evil these raiders were, they may or may not have opted to rape the women first. In any case, they stripped your town bare, taking your animals, goods, possessions and anything worth carrying, then often burned it to the ground for good measure.

‘The Land Had Rest’

Now, there were indeed times during this period when peace was effectively maintained, but these were few and far between. If we total the periods of “rest” referred to in the relevant historical books, they come to roughly 250 years out of 800; less than a third. Because these times of peace are so specifically distinguished for us, we are probably not out of line to assume the remaining 550 years were pretty rough for the average Israelite family, and even when they were not, the potential for unexpected violence was never far away. Even when peace was enforced, it would have been hard to know how long it would last and when it might suddenly end.

Life in fortified cities gave one a better chance of survival, but this was not an option for the majority of Israel’s population, who relied on farming not only for their own livelihoods but also in order to feed the men and women who lived in neighboring cities, which could not exist long without the food produced in the surrounding countryside. Many years during this period were probably spent looking furtively over one shoulder while plowing, threshing or harvesting in case you suddenly had to turn and defend yourself against an attack of some sort.

Life in Bad Times

This is how people lived. It was not safe, it was not predictable, and it was not even remotely possible for a 115 pound woman to effectively provide for herself or to defend herself from marauding bands of men with swords. For that, she required a husband and a community who would stand with him in times of trouble. In really bad times, it would be far safer to be the second, third or fourth wife of a powerful chief than the only wife of an aging farmer with a bad back, which is probably why men like David and Solomon accumulated so many wives so easily. There was benefit to both parties in such a relationship: status, sex and the maximum number of children for the man; protection and provision for the woman.

In such a climate, it is not hard to see why the respective roles of men and women were what they were. Male muscle and sword power were at a premium, and those nations and cities which had them available in spades were able to enforce their will on the weak to maximum advantage. That said, it was not necessarily a fun time to be male. The man always died first, and went into battle after battle never knowing whether or not he would come home. If you didn’t get good at it, or very shrewd, you wouldn’t last long. When these men died, more often than not they died fighting not for some abstraction, but for the women they loved and the families they had raised with them. And they died in staggering numbers, many hundreds of thousands more than the women and children they were protecting.

Women and Agency

Women may have had a much more defined role in Israelite society than they do today, with certain limitations today’s women would never put up with, but these existed more for their protection than for their abuse. For a woman, the best possible situation involved marrying a powerful man and bearing him as many sons and heirs as possible. They were his protection, and hers.

Contrary to what the historical revisionists will tell you, women had plenty of agency in these Old Testament stories, even if they did not have all the freedoms (and the accompanying risks) they enjoy today. They just had to do their business by means of discretion or guile rather than brute force, a role for which women in every age are eminently suited.

So Delilah played Samson like a fiddle. Ruth won the heart of a wealthy, decent man with circumspection and by observing the appropriate local customs. Abigail wisely went behind her husband’s back and saved his life. Solomon’s wives turned his heart away from the Lord. Jezebel worked Ahab like a rented mule. Athaliah (briefly) ruled Judah. Good or bad, they all had plenty of agency.

Instructions for Millennia

When the teaching of the New Testament — which we now know was intended to provide direction for Christians not just at the present moment, when women are setting the agenda in nearly every Western nation, but over a period of at very least 2,000 years in all manner of times and conditions — directs wives to live out what some characterize as a subservient role with respect to their husbands, it is not for no reason. It is not misogynistic, patriarchal or primitive. It is not ignorant or uninformed. It is not a mere product of the social conventions of the various cultures which gave rise to the writing of scripture.

Rather, it is logical and sensible. It is inferred from the creation order and from the circumstances of the Fall. It takes into account the inherent physical limitations of women to impose their wills by force, which will never change, regardless of the political climate in any exceptional century. Women are, figuratively speaking, the “weaker vessel”. But that “weaker” part is absolutely literal, notwithstanding the crazy, impossible stunts women are imagined to perform in today’s wildly inaccurate movies, or the ridiculous new (and quite popular) professional wrestling trend in which 110 pound women regularly pin 280 pound men.

There is no reason to doubt that the teaching of the apostles and writers of the New Testament is intended to produce the very best for women and the best for men. If you do doubt it, take a minute to imagine how things are likely to go for women if and when Sharia law rules the West.

Trust me, they will not be anyone’s cup of tea.

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