The status of women in Israelite society is a highly debated subject in biblical scholarship. In some texts of the Old Testament women are presented as property of their fathers and husbands. The husband was a woman’s “baal.” This Hebrew word was translated sometimes as “husband,” “owner” or “master.”
In the Old Testament, as well as in the Ancient Near East, a man could have many wives; multiple marriage was the evidence of a man’s wealth and power. Few women were independent, for they needed their fathers and husbands to provide for them. In other texts women are portrayed as victims of men’s brutality and inhumanity: women were bought and sold, raped, enslaved, murdered, and abandoned. Daughters were sold as slaves by their fathers (Exodus 21:7-11). A law in Leviticus 19:29 was enacted, forbidding a man from selling his daughter as a prostitute. The implication of this law was that some men had no reservation about selling their daughters when forced by poverty or when compelled by greed.
In other Old Testament texts, women are portrayed as persons with dignity. In Genesis 1:26-27 the woman was created in the image of God, although this passage reflects a much developed theology. This theology of womanhood, woman as a person equal to the man, created in the image of God, developed gradually in Israel and finds full expression in the priestly theology of the postexilic time.
In Genesis 2:18 , the woman is portrayed as companion to her husband, his ‘ēzer kenegdô, a helper to the man. The Hebrew expression, ‘ēzer kenegdô, does not carry the connotation of inferiority or subordination. The creation of the woman is the climax of the Yahwistic creation story in Genesis 2. The woman was created to be a companion to a lonely man, thus giving to both of them the possibility of community, commonality, and wholeness.
These two theological views of the status of women as persons of worth and dignity at times are betrayed by the social realities present in Israelite society. The status of women probably became more difficult as a result of a misinterpretation of Genesis 3:16, a text in which God says that the man is to rule over his wife as a consequence of her disobedience. If this was so, then men in Israelite society understood the text to describe the life of a woman as a person “under the curse.” Phyllis Trible (God and the Rethoric of Sexuality [Overture to Biblical Theology; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978) has said that as a result of the shared transgression of both man and woman, “oppression resulting from transgression is actualized by a design that emphasizes the man and minimizes the woman” (p. 128). Because of the social limitations imposed upon women, most women in Israel found their sense of worth, fulfillment, and personhood in being a mother and a wife.
In spite of the limitations imposed upon women, some women forged important places in Israelite society. Some, women, like Deborah served as a judge, others, like Huldah served as prophets. Some women served as queens and queen-mothers, thus exercising much power and authority in Israelite society. Centralization of wealth in the hands of a few families elevated the status of some women and enabled them to live a life of luxury and to exert power over men.
Over the centuries, Israelite society suffered many transformations. From a tribal community, in which people had much in common and where few inequalities existed, Israel became a state, with a monarchy and a royal family that consumed a large portion of the goods produced by the average Israelite. The growing number of civil servants forced the state to enact a system of taxation that served to create a class of rich citizens at the expense of Israelite farmers and villagers. These social, economic, and political changes in Israelite society served as a catalyst to impact the status of women in society and greatly affect their lives.
Over the years, many laws were enacted to provide some relief to the plight of women in Israelite society. The Book of the Covenant, also known as the Covenant Code (Exodus 20:22-23:33), is the oldest code of law in Israel. The Book of the Covenant is a codification of ancient laws and traditions that attained its final form either at the end of the tribal confederacy or at the beginning of the monarchy in the days of David or Solomon. There are many laws in the Book of the Covenant that deal with social injustice and the plight of the destitute and the oppressed in Israel.
In a future post I will study some of these laws and how Israel made an attempt at dealing with the religious and social problems of Israelite society. Israelite laws reveal that there was an attempt to develop a special sense of social responsibility in the life of every Israelite for the poor, women, and for those in society who were underprivileged and did not enjoy the whole benefit of the law.
To be continued.
Studies on the Deuteronomic Concern for Women
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary