In her essay in Congregation, Francine Prose notes, “God and his Prophet seem to take for granted an audience of men. It is only the men He chastises for marrying outside the tribe, for ‘putting away’ their spouses; the priests He addresses for much of the book were also, it hardly needs pointing out, male.”
She’s discussing the Book of Malachi, but her plaint can run the entire length of the Bible.
Once more I hear Daphne Merkin’s reflection on Ecclesiastes echoing loudly: “As a daughter in an Orthodox household, I had no text to call my own. In contrast to Jewish sons … Jewish daughters have at best an oblique connection to the sacred volumes of their heritage.”
Women seem marginal to this epic, even though they are the ones who instruct the young boys in the faith — why else would there be the condemnation of marrying foreign wives or, especially, queens?
While the Hebrew Bible names 48 male prophets, it has only seven prophetesses, the last one being Esther, a curious choice considering that God is not even mentioned in her story — does the Holy One even speak to her? Does she even pray to her God? Apart from Esther, none of the women have their own book.
At best, women are taken for granted. Do they even have their own communal spiritual teachings, practices, and alliances?
The text is of little help here.
Of course, it doesn’t help to have the Prophets repeatedly referring to God as a male presence. There’s little counterbalance.
There is, though, a sense of the new moon worship as a feminine expression, though we’re given no guidelines for its observance, certainly not along the lines of the Tabernacle or later Temple or the elaborate priesthood and their functions. I’m left wondering what happens to the sacred marking of each new month, once mandated, but then what? Did it take on forbidden practices, including human sacrifice? New moon worship would have been more frequent than the annual journey to sacrifice at the Temple, and thus, more ingrained in the regular household routine.
Or did it continue as a sabbath — a day of family, friends, and rest — shorn of elaborate ritual?
Once again, the text is of little help.
Repeatedly, the foreign woman is presented as more appealing, even more exciting, than the Jewish women presumably constrained under the Law.
Yes, we have Esther and Judith as seductive exceptions, but their sexual allure is to powerful goys rather than potential Jewish spouses.
As femme fatales go, consider the contrast between Delilah and Judith.
Delilah at least toys with Samson, warns him, pushes him away, yet he keeps coming back. There’s a chemistry. He’s a willing victim. And yet, by tradition, we blame her — unfairly, I’d say.
Judith, on the other hand, is a one-night stand, a cold hit man (is there even a gender-neutral word for this kind of executioner?). Holofernes is depicted as a powerless victim — “The heart of Holofernes was ravished at the sight; his very soul was stirred. He was seized with a violent desire to sleep with her” (Judith 12:16 NJB).
Oh, poor males, unable to control our lusts! So we blame the woman, do we?
Well, it apparently comes at a price. For him, it’s more serious than castration.
Oh, and there’s the insistence in the story that only her face seduced him, suggesting he never even saw her naked much less had intercourse — “He committed no sin with me to shame me or disgrace me” (13:16). How pure.
Could it be that in spite of all of the verses of military might running through the Bible, the men are secretly afraid women are the stronger sex?
Just look at all of the warnings given to young men, especially in books like Proverbs.
It puts the battle of the sexes in another light.
Nowhere does the conflict become more apparent than in the repeated injections against prostitution — more commonly using the loaded words “harlot” or “whore” than “prostitute” in the King James verses. These arise in half of the books of the Hebrew Bible.
How much is this an injunction against impurity — physical, societal, or spiritual? To what extent, if any, were sexually transmitted diseases a factor in ancient times?
Men in a patriarchy needed reassurance that their offspring were indeed theirs, which would explain their desire to keep their wives and concubines sequestered. But that wouldn’t, by itself, prevent them from pleasuring themselves with hired women, would it? Or were men in polygamous marriages constrained by vows of exclusivity?
Considering the frequency of the prohibitions, we can assume that prostitution was commonplace. You don’t repeatedly make rules against things that don’t happen.
We can wonder about the economic dimensions here. If husbands were spending for sexual pleasures elsewhere, was it depriving wives of what was (or should have been) rightfully theirs?
On the other hand, did sexual service give a woman uncommon independence and wealth, thus presenting a threat to the home? Or was she herself a victim, perhaps even a slave?
Leviticus 19:29 offers this warning, presumably directed at fathers rather than mothers: “Do not prostitute thy daughter, to cause her to be a whore.”
So pimping was one possible objection.
Another was the existence of temple prostitutes, female and male, working in fertility rites associated with pagan deities. They were likely a source of income for the upkeep of the temples and priesthood — presumably forced prostitution.
The practice, as we read in Kings, even extended to the Temple in Jerusalem at times between repeated purging.
Read closely, and passages often cited as prohibiting male homosexuality can be seen as prohibitions of male temple prostitution.
The tenor of the condemnations of prostitution hit women more severely than men. Where’s the condemnation of the clients! That is, why aren’t males held responsible for their role in the trade? Are they too weak to avoid the stronger appeal of sexually active women? There’s nothing mutual in this presentation or, apparently, practice.
Well, Judah in Genesis 38 gets his comeuppance from his daughter-in-law, but it’s an almost humorous turnabout as fair play.
And Baruch 6:42-4 presents a bizarre commentary on “women with cords around them [who] sit in the streets, burning bran as incense. When one of them is led off by one of the passers-by and is taken to bed by him, she derides the woman net to her been to bed with him, she derides the woman next to her, because she was not as attractive as herself and her cord was not broken.” One commentator notes that virginity was sometimes sold off in this way for those becoming temple prostitutes. Since this passage follows a long diatribe about the powerlessness of idols themselves and the futility of their rites, the next line is telling: “Whatever is done for them is false,” in the NRSV. These gods, not the prostitutes, are the point of the next sentence: “Why then must anyone think that they are gods, or call them gods?”
The tradition of selling one’s virginity to a stranger before marriage leads to other questions. Is this a way for an impoverished girl to accumulate a dowry for marriage? It would certainly thicken the plot, especially if upward social mobility is a potential outcome.
In the verses we have, though, none of these possibilities are acknowledged.
Consider, too, the sequence of matriarchs who have difficulty conceiving, from Sarah and Rachel to Hannah and the unnamed wife of Manoah and on down to Elizabeth in the New Testament. It’s unnatural, actually, considering the emphasis on fecundity. Is there a place for a female fertility cult here?
There is, however, a continuing implication that virile men cannot control their sexual drive for conquest — ah, the male fertility god meets the war-god!
Yet these men seem endangered by women. Just how impotent is Jezebel’s husband, anyway? Or how upright, as a man or a penis?
In Genesis 2-3, God promises Adam “a suitable helpmeet” as a companion. There’s an implicit equality.
The failure to consider women as full partners in this religion, either as wives or as priests and prophets, seriously weakens the revolutionary drive of the Covenant.
How I wish their part of the experience were given fuller voice, and how I wish they had been able to exercise more of an active role in its evolution.
There is a turn in the New Testament, where Jesus is corrected by women, including those from Samaria, the lingering northern kingdom, as if leading both halves toward healing/salvation.
But that, too, is downplayed in the text.