Prostitution and the missing voice of suitable helpmeet

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.

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Feeling like a guest in the epic

Whichever way we conclude reading through what I’ll reluctantly call the Old Testament, whether it be with Malachi or Chronicles, and whether we include the Apocrypha of the Vulgate editions or limit ourselves to those of the standard Hebrew Bible, a pause is needed before plunging ahead into the New Testament.

My straight-through reading took place four years ago now — occupying a bit under three months, as I recall.

My plan to go back through to collect my marginal notes and scattered thoughts, however, got ambushed. A near heart attack, for one thing, intervened, as did a new novel and a host of revisions on the earlier ones.

Since launching this series, it’s already taken us a year to get through my posts on the Old Testament. (I am somewhat relieved that many of the Jewish authors in Congregation refer to that collection as such.)

I started out looking for the Big Picture. As if there were one.

What I’ve encountered is a startling range of encounters that ask, ultimately, how do we experience the Other, the Holy One, the I AM? And then, how do we respond?

As if the Other is a thing, or even a person, rather than existing totally beyond (or outside of) physical matter or energy. Something like that.

 

Collecting my notes and considerations led to another surprise, a book I picked up at a remaindered (that is, sharply discounted) price in a bookstore. A gem, at that, even if it took me more than two decades before delving into its riches: Congregation, Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible, edited by David Rosenberg.

His introduction, by the way, I’d love to quote verbatim. The ambitious volume itself, unfortunately, seems to be long out of print BUT you can find copies online. Grab one, if you wish.

One thing Rosenberg’s assembly of authors and Everett Fox’s notes for the Five Books of Moses gave me was a perception of how much I and, for that matter, most Christians, do not, even cannot, appreciate in these texts.

It’s not just the dirty jokes we’re missing, though there appear to be many earthy asides we don’t catch.

More than that, though, is a recognition of how much Christians miss in their unawareness of midrash — the fleshing out of these amazingly barebone, minimalist texts — often assembled in the accompanying Talmud and more. My, how the rabbis over the ages have reimagined and given body to these spare lines! They’ve lived with them, dreamed of them, reinterpreted them. None of this comes through in any of the Protestant commentaries I’ve encountered, where, I suspect, many of the assertions would come as an embarrassment or appear even as borderline heresy. Oh, yes, it seems fair in this practice to actually challenge and confront the text, rather than accept it at face value. There’s no way a fundamentalist would accept irony, for example, or perhaps even humor. As for poetry? Metaphor compresses experiences, emphasizes the subjective over quantifiable objectivity.

 

Another thing that came through strongly, in essay after essay, was how much these books are family stories for Jews, reflections of their very identity and roots, even among non-observant families. I appreciate the authors’ childhood memories and idiosyncratic relatives woven through these essays. For the rest of us, we might be able to say so-and-so was “like” as Biblical figure, but we’d never think of these ancient characters as our ancestry and original household.

As for that Big Picture? Oh, my. My reading left me feeling it’s more like a huge art museum, with gallery after gallery to explore. And that’s before adding the New Testament.

 

Choosing from three different orderings

As I’ve noted, we have three different selections of the books of the Bible, and even their order of appearance can differ. Here they are for comparison:

Open Gutenberg Bible

HEBREW BIBLE, 24 books

  1. Genesis
  2. Exodus
  3. Leviticus
  4. Numbers
  5. Deuteronomy
  6. Joshua
  7. Judges
  8. Samuel
  9. Kings
  10. Isaiah
  11. Jeremiah
  12. Ezekiel
  13. The Twelve (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obediah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zepaniah, Haggai, Zachariah, Malachi)
  14. Psalms
  15. Proverbs
  16. Job
  17. Song of Songs
  18. Ruth
  19. Lamentations
  20. Ecclesiastes
  21. Esther
  22. Daniel
  23. Ezra / Nehemiah
  24. Chronicles
  25. No Maccabees! And, of course, no New Testament.
Gutenberg Bible page

 

VULGATE/ROMAN CATHOLIC, 46 books in Old Testament.

Also, with slight variation, used by EASTERN ORTHODOX.

  1. Genesis
  2. Exodus
  3. Leviticus
  4. Numbers
  5. Deuteronomy
  6. Joshua
  7. Judges
  8. Ruth
  9. First Samuel
  10. Second Samuel
  11. First Kings
  12. Second Kings
  13. First Chronicles
  14. Second Chronicles
  15. Ezra
  16. Nehemiah
  17. Tobit
  18. Judith
  19. Esther
  20. First Maccabees
  21. Second Maccabees
  22. Job
  23. The Psalms
  24. The Proverbs
  25. Ecclesiastes
  26. The Song of Songs
  27. The Book of Wisdom
  28. Ecclesiasticus
  29. Isaiah
  30. Jeremiah
  31. Lamentations
  32. Baruch
  33. Ezekiel
  34. Daniel
  35. Hosea
  36. Joel
  37. Amos
  38. Obediah
  39. Jonah
  40. Micah
  41. Nahum
  42. Habakkuk
  43. Zepaniah
  44. Haggai
  45. Zachariah
  46. Malachi

Plus New Testament

And, for further complications, the books of the Apocrypha are sometimes placed between the Old Testament and the New Testaments. The order above is the one I followed in my straight-through reading.

Johann Gutenberg

 

PROTESTANT, 36 books in Old Testament.

  1. Genesis
  2. Exodus
  3. Leviticus
  4. Numbers
  5. Deuteronomy
  6. Joshua
  7. Judges
  8. Ruth
  9. First and Second Samuel
  10. First and Second Kings
  11. First and Second Chronicles
  12. Ezra
  13. Nehemiah
  14. Esther
  15. Job
  16. Psalms
  17. Proverbs
  18. Ecclesiastes
  19. Song of Songs
  20. Isaiah
  21. Jeremiah
  22. Lamentations
  23. Ezekiel
  24. Daniel
  25. Hosea
  26. Joel
  27. Amos
  28. Obediah
  29. Jonah
  30. Micah
  31. Nahum
  32. Habakkuk
  33. Zepaniah
  34. Haggai
  35. Zachariah
  36. Malachi

Plus New Testament

~*~

Hope this helps.

An emphasis on mutual fidelity in daily practice

In this straight-through reading of the Bible, I set out looking for the big picture.

As we might say, God is in the details — but there’s a host of them in these pages. Or, more accurately, in these scrolls, filled with a plethora of issues, events, and people.

Pardon the pun, then, if we consider the Lord of Hosts, meaning a vast array of so much. (Ahem.) (Or amen.)

Arriving at the end of Hebrew Bible (there are, as I’ve remarked, differences between that collection and those of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, on one hand, and the Protestant, on the other), I am struck by an awareness of one crucial variance in the sequencing.

That comes with, where the Jewish approach places the utopian Chronicles as the grand finale. It’s a grand reprise, a reminder of what’s come before, rather than simply an alternative telling of Kings right before it.

Abraham by Ephraim Moses Lilien

 

Since my straight-through reading followed Christian sequence, where Chronicles comes as right after Kings, the Old Testament simply petered out. There was no overarching structure. Perhaps this is intentional, to emphasize what will follow with Jesus and his followers.

Not so in the Hebrew Bible ordering.

As Herbert Tarr contends in his essay in Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible, “It’s fitting for the Jewish Bible to conclude with the Book of Chronicles … Not only does it review the history of Genesis through Kings, but it reiterates the central contractual theme that runs throughout the Jewish Bible and foreshadows the Talmud, which focuses on the law and its application. For it was the people of Israel and their Bible — not classical Rome, a Johnny-come-lately to the ancient world — that gave mankind the concept of law as well as monotheism.”

He then sees Pauline Christianity remiss in dismissing the legal contract of the Jews and instead proclaiming a new covenant. “Christians regard the Jewish Bible as a small library of individual books,” he observes. “Not so: the entire Jewish Bible is essentially one extended lawbook that delineates the Covenant into which God and Israel entered voluntarily. If Israel is the Chosen People, she is also — this is equally important — the choosing people. Without Israel’s concurrence, there would have been no deal — and no Bible.”

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The Twelve: how many can you name?  

At this point, Christian Bibles continue with twelve short books focused on seemingly minor prophets — a rather puzzling occurrence, since these fall after the big books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, as well as the earlier struggles of Elijah and Elisha. It’s as if prophecy were running out of steam.

The Hebrew canon, in contrast, unites them in a single scroll known as the Twelve — Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obediah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zepaniah, Haggai, Zachariah, and Malachi. (So how many can you name?)

Each of them has something valuable to add, though they often seem to be summed up in a single quotation or two. And in trying to make sense of the historical events they address, I do get whiplash.

In my overview, considering them as together seems to make sense — kind of like looking at a team, right?

Here goes, then:

~*~

Hosea: The male God imagery culminates, along with the misogyny, even if the Jews as a people or we Christians, in succession, are cast as the whoring wife.

How far are we, individually and collectively, to go in extending such forgiveness?

Joel: Chapter 3 is a great proclamation of the Holy Spirit, a contrast to the New Testament contention that casts it as the “third person of Trinity.”

Amos: Of the prophets, I’d say he’s the most bitter, the darkest. At least the dour voice of Ecclesiastes never claims to be an oracle, unlike Amos, who nevertheless also raises a call for justice.

Obediah: I like the line, “Your proud heart has misled you,” but have to ask just what this adds to the understanding.

Jonah: Usually lost in the emphasis on the fish story is the profound personal struggle of being true to a prophet calling. He tries running away, to Spain in the opposite direction, but is thrown back with an order to command his hated enemies to repentance. And then, to his bitter horror, they do and are saved. In this sweep, what came through most for me is the black comedy. Forget the big fish, by the way — it’s too much of a distraction.

Micah: Another plea to just do what’s right.

Nahum: What do we make of Nineveh in Biblical times? After the Babylonian captivity? Here we focus on the fall of the city and its empire.

Habakkuk: Now we’re back to Babylon and its oppression.

Zepaniah: Backward even more in the chronology, to the time of King Josiah. Destruction followed by hope.

Haggai: Back from the exile, here’s encouragement to rebuild. A sense of commonwealth, too.

Zachariah: Again, shortly after the return from exile. This text is shot through with psychedelic visions, plus expectations of Messiah.

Malachi: Means simply “my messenger.” A call for faithfulness.

I was surprised that Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible had essays on only seven of these prophets, although Jonah got two commentators. Even so, the responses were lengthy, often reflections on the authors’ own childhoods and struggles with Jewish identity.

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Daniel as psychodrama

This is a book I love to teach with the older kids in Quaker Meeting. Not that I take a conventional approach.

How, for instance, does anyone in the story determine that Daniel is ten times smarter by sticking to a vegetarian diet or that the fire becomes seven times hotter? Like they had IQ tests or thermometers back then?

The text is full of sly humor, for one thing. The kids can’t help but laugh when the tormenters instead of the heroes fall into the blazing furnace. They brighten, too, when they recognize the peer pressure to worship the statue, one that measures the height of a surviving industrial smokestack in our town.

Yes, kids know what it is to be pressured, as well as often being unjustly tormented.

So far, none of them have asked if these things actually happened. Rather, they get swept up in the underlying psychological drama — the truth of the heartfelt desires for ultimate justice.

Once again, we also have the power of dreams. And what dreams!

In the big sweep, we have the angel Gabriel making his first appearance. Apparently, he has wings: he swoops in full flight (9:11).

Also, we have visions of resurrection, first mentioned in Ezekiel.

Plus, who can’t love the story of Susanna when she gets her ultimate justice?

 

In my straight-through reading, now with an awareness of the presence of eunuchs in the Bible, I stop cold at verses 1:3-5: “From the Israelites, the king [Nebuchadnezzar] Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring a certain number of boys or noble or royal descent; they had to be without any physical defect, of good appearance, versed in every branch of wisdom, well-informed, discerning, suitable for service in the royal court.” After three years of preparation, “they would enter the royal court.”

I hear an alarm sound. Was Daniel, along with his three loyal companions, made a eunuch? Or did the king have other designs on them? The Bible tells of no descendants from him. Once again, the conventional assumptions of macho masculinity for Jewish heroes is challenged. As performance artist Peterson Toscano contends, the sexual identities run across a spectrum rather than solid black or white.

(Only a few books back, we had Jeremiah being rescued by a court eunuch, 38:7-13.)

 

Such is the importance of Daniel that Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible has two essays, rather than only one.

In the first, Lynne Sharon Schwartz revisits her memories of being a child reader enchanted with the retelling in Bible Tales.

As “a child in a world of adults” and “a dreamer in post-World War II Brooklyn,” she identified with being an exile in a strange land and having overlords at home, at school, and on the street. Reading the Bible Tales lines, “The king was kind to the captive Jews, and very few of them were made to work as slaves,” to which Schwartz responded, “School was a form of slavery. What I was exiled from, I know now, was my future, which would be totally different. … But how long the waiting seemed …”

She admits the “sense of joy and validation I felt, of pure aesthetic rightness at Daniel’s words, is indescribable. … Not ‘Here I am” but ‘Here am I.’ The transposition makes all the difference.”

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Ezekiel’s visual wonder

It’s one of those books I pretty much skipped over in the past, but in my straight-through reading I was moved by the psychedelic imagery and hallucinogenic imagination.

So the Prophet puts his hope in the exiles rather than the remnant in Judah? Got that?

Here, he expresses repeated experiences of being moved by the spirit of Yahweh, “which entered me and put me on my feet and spoke to me.” Again, I tally these as evidence of a growing awareness of the Holy Spirit before the New Testament accounts. He also rejects a later Protestant “assurance of salvation” in verse 18:24, where he also suggests an eternal death for the unrighteous — and, by implication, eternal life for the righteous?

His rage against politics and kings and queens (“politicians” will fit just fine as a synonym here) eventually leads up to a denunciation of what later became “divine right.”

And then we have the resurrection of the dry bones.

Divine visions … why not!

So what do I make of all of his all of his dimensions for the rebuilt Temple, as well as the spring within it, like a source of energy? His expressions of hope in the future include descriptions of a single shepherd leading the people — an image that returns full-force in the New Testament.

 

In Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible, Elie Wiesel notes, “His book is the only one — of the Prophets — that almost fell victim to censorship. Indeed, for a while the Book of Ezekiel was in danger of not being published.”

Wiesel ponders the possible reasons before concluding that Ezekiel alone describes his visions. Other Prophets had visions, “but why did he have to reveal them to others? … Why did he have to boast about it?”

More to the point, “God was kind enough to show him the chariot and its mystical creatures. But nowhere is it mentioned that God told him to tell others what he had seen. And yet Ezekiel did not hesitate to reveal everything he had seen. That was his mistake.”

Does Wiesel wish to keep the expression of this religion entirely verbal, except for the visual details of the Temple? Ezekiel, he contends, “did not understand that there are experiences that cannot be communicated by words. He did not understand the importance of silence — the occasional necessity for silence.”

Suppose Ezekiel had tried to render these as paintings? I feel certain they would have faced even stronger censure.

So the image of bones has generated divided opinions in the Talmud, where rabbis have attempted to make sense of the image. Do they die again and, if so, will it be painless? That sort of thing.

As for me? I love the fact that visual imagery can never quite be nailed down in words. Let’s leave ourselves to view its endless wonders.

Baruch in Jeremiah’s shadow

Attributed to Jeremiah’s secretary (apparently, even a prophet under fire could have an income sufficient to hire help), this is a short, strange book of four quite different pieces, including one on Wisdom and a letter supposedly by Jeremiah.

The book is included in the Apocrypha of the Vulgate (Roman Catholic) and the Eastern Orthodox canon but not those of the Hebrew or Protestant Bibles.

Reminds me of those leftovers a writer just can’t quite trash. Stuff you want to find a new home for, somewhere.

Baruch taking dictation from Jeremiah, who is channeling a message from above.