H I S T O R Y   PA P E R
How do you think Jewish women were treated as in the pre-Christian world?
Here, one will learn about various examples directly from the Old Testament
about the roles that people saw fit for women.

Perception of Jewish Women
in the Old Testament

1 Since the beginning of the Jewish religion, women have had a marginalized roles that encompasses almost every facet of life. Treated as lowly creatures, they were restricted to roles of little or no authority, largely confined to their father’s or husband’s home, and placed under the authority of men. In the Christian translations of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament), women were generally viewed as inferior to men, as sexual predators, and/or an item of property. Even so, some women were able to transcend these limitations and rise above the lowly status given to them in the Old Testament.

2 In the creation story (Genesis 1:27), God is described as creating man and woman at the same time, which might be interpreted as implying that the two genders are equal. But in the second creation story (Genesis 2:7), God forms only a man. Realizing that he needs a helper, God marches all the animals past Adam looking for a suitable animal, but he finds none is suitable. Then, out of one of Adam’s ribs, God creates Eve as his helper. The Hebrew word translated to “helper” is used a total of twenty-one times in the Old Testament—twenty of these cases refer to help for a superior. This term has been historically interpreted as implying that Eve, his “helper", is Adam’s inferior. The King James Version (KJV), New International Version (NIV), and Revised Standard Version (RSV) use the term “rule” to describe Adam’s relationship with Eve; he rules over her. The Living Bible uses the term “master", and the Modern Language Bible uses “dominate". By implication, all of their descendents would have the same power imbalance between spouses. If the first woman was under the power of the first man, why would there be a shift of power between the genders in generations after Adam and Eve? This is one reason why man is seen in the Biblical texts as the superior gender.

3 A man could marry literally to “become the master of the woman,” as often as he desired. Lamech, the first known polygamist, took two wives. Following him was Esau with three wives; Jacob with two; Ashur with two; Gideon with several; Elkanah with two; Rehaboam with three; and Abijah with fourteen. Also, Kings 1 tells of Solomon marrying daughters of powerful allies in order to strengthen his alliance with them. Throughout his lifetime, he had a total of 700 wives and 300 concubines—many of whom he could not even recognize or remember. Several other Old Testament patriarchs, such as Jehoram, Joash, Ahab, Jeholachin, and Belshazzar, also had multiple wives. Within the majority of Western cultures today, the idea of polygamy is unfathomable, while the cultures in the time period of the Old Testament seem to find it commonplacel.

4 Another example of how women were treated as second-rate human beings is in Genesis 19. The ignominious men of Sodom gather around Lot’s house and ask that he bring his two guests out so that the men can “know” them. Frequently, this is interpreted as a desire to gang rape Lot’s two visitors homosexually. But, in response to them, Lot then offers his two daughters to be raped instead. Yet, even after this despicable act, Lot is still regarded as an honorable man, worth saving from the destruction of the city. In this pre-Christian world, the very high place of any guest in the home proceeds that of one’s own family. Furthermore, allowing one’s daughters to be sexually assaulted by multiple rapists appears to be a minor transgression because of the low status of young women.

5 The book of Exodus also has several examples of women being treated as inferiors. In one instance, the Pharaoh fears the growth of the Israeli population. Consequently, the king of Egypt orders the Hebrew midwives to kill all Jewish boys at birth because of the threat that they might pose to the kingdom. The Pharaoh says, "When you are attending the Hebrew women in childbirth, kill the child if it is a boy. You can let the girls live" (Exodus 1:16). The girls, seen as less significant, are not seen as a risk; therefore, they are allowed to keep their lives.

6 Exodus 20:17 lists the last of the Ten Commandments. It forbids coveting one's neighbor’s house, wife, slaves, animals or anything else that the neighbor owns—the wife is clearly regarded as an equivalent to a piece of property. Exodus 21:22-25 describes a situation in which two men are fighting and hit a pregnant woman. When the woman suffers a miscarriage, the men are forced to pay a fine, not to the woman, but to her husband instead. Presumably, the husband has been deprived of a child.

7Furthermore, in Leviticus, a woman who gives birth to a boy is “unclean” for 40 days, while, if the mother gives birth to a girl, the mother is then seen as “unclean” for 80 days. Supposedly, giving birth to a girl is twice as polluting as giving birth to a boy. Leviticus 18:20 and 20:10 defines adultery as a man having sexual intercourse with his neighbor’s wife. Deuteronomy 22:23 extends this prohibition to a man sleeping with a woman who is engaged to be married. If a man has an affair with an unmarried woman, the act is not considered adultery. Married men were free to visit prostitutes. A man who committed adultery did not commit a wrongful act against his wife but rather against his male neighbor.

8 The Bible presents the values of chastisity and virginity as extremely dissimilar for a female and a male. Deuteronomy 22:13-21 requires that a woman be a virgin when she is married. If she has had sexual relations while single in her father’s house, then she would be stoned to death. There is nothing similar to this for men. Moreover, if a virgin woman has been raped, the woman must marry her attacker, no matter how she feels about the rapist.

9 In Numbers 27:8-11, Moses describes the rules of inheritance that God has stated. If a man dies, his son inherits the estate; his daughter gets nothing. If there is no son, then his daughter inherits. If there are no children, then the estate is given to the man’s brothers; his sister(s) get nothing.

10 Along with degrading roles that women are given in the Old Testament, some women are also seen as sexual predators. In Genesis 19:30-36, Lot’s two daughters make their father drunk with wine on two successive nights. Each daughter then commits incest with her father and becomes pregnant. Their two sons, Moab and Ben-Ammi, become the patriarchs of the Moabite and Ammonite people, who are two of Israel’s most serious foes. In Judges 16, Delilah seduces Samson in order to find out the secret of his great strength, thus ultimately leading to Samson’s death.

11 Additionally, a girl was considered the property of her father. At marriage, her ownership was transferred to her new husband. In Exodus, a slave owner is permitted to give a woman to his male slave as a wife without deliberating with the woman. Fathers could sell their daughters as slaves, and male slaves could earn their freedom, while woman slaves had to remain slaves forever.

12 In spite of all these examples of women being treated as second-rate creatures, items of property, and sexual predators, there are some women who were viewed in a more positive light. In 1 Samuel, Hannah is loved by her husband Elkanah even though she is barren. On the day when Elkanah sacrifices in the temple, he gives portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; but to his other wife Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loves her, though the Lord has closed her womb. Hannah prays relentlessly to God to give her a male child, and in due time, she conceives and gives birth to her son, Samuel. Also, in the book of Esther, Esther is given by the grace of God a chance to save all the Jews in the kingdom of Shushan. With patience and the will to find favor with God, Queen Esther is able to prevent Haman, who was plotting to kill all the Jews in the kingdom, from accomplishing this.

13 The roles portrayed in the Bible by women are many. Sadly, it seems that the majority of women throughout the Old Testament are not seen as partners in life but more as an accessory that can be easily replaced. To read back on these old traditions and see how unjustly these women were treated makes us realize how much the position of women in society has evolved into a more ethical and social order. Although some rebelled against the status given to them by men, many had to suffer because of it. Even with the various possible interpretation of the Bible, the status of the women in the Old Testament is clearly much lower than that of men, with very few exceptions.


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