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The Hebrew Bible is one of the main religious which helps to understand and analyze the role of women in ancient society. The Hebrew Bible reflects some of the most fundamental laws and portrays the status of women in society. It stipulates three main areas marriage, divorce, and inheritance. The main primary source which helps to develop the topic is the Hebrew Bible. This source will be used to support the ideas and cite examples. The main secondary sources will be Women in the Hebrew Bible by A. Bach, Women in Scripture by C. Meyers and T. Craven. Frymer-Kensky, T. and Reading the Women of the Bible: by A. Schocken. Thesis Through marriage laws and ceremonies the Hebrew Bible emphasizes secondary status of women in family and ancient society.
The Hebrew Bible mentions a lot of women but a special attention is given to four women: Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel. Also, it includes queens, women prophets and judges and, as the most important two women heroes: Ruth and Esther. In general, The Hebrew Bible received a masculine structure as only men were nearly exclusively in contact with God; they elaborated the dogmas, organized and presided over the Christian community. For instance, “Hannah’s status as primary wife and her barrenness recall Sarah and Rebekah, and an implicit comparison with these earlier women underlies the entire narrative” (Meyers and Craven 90).
Women were given a marginal place. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob did not turn out to be, in the same way, the God of Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel. The hierarchy, God, man, woman, brought about a legislation of masculine privileges in The Hebrew Bible (divorce law and marriage law).
The role and values of family allow understanding the position of women and their social roles. The Hebrew Bible portrays that women’s status was reflected in the marriage. A woman was obliged to follow a man to his tribe and to bear children who were considered to be of his blood. Strong emphasis was placed on the chastity and potential fidelity of the woman. The examples of Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel show that their family strictly limited their behavior in order to ensure their reputation and consequently the family’s honor (Frymer-Kensky 186).
Since a woman would eventually leave the family, her value consisted primarily in the payment her family received at her marriage sale. In addition, any possibility of her right to inheritance from her family, especially inheritance of fixed property such as land, which would in effect be transferring family wealth to another tribe, was out of the question. And, the married woman’s status in her new family was not improved (Olsen 82). As a wife she became subject to her husband and his kindred and dependent upon them for maintenance and support. According to Buch, “The reference to Rachel’s beauty occurs in the context of Jacob’s request for her hand in marriage, and serves to explain his preference for her over her sister, rather than to introduce her as an autonomous character (47).
The marriage produced a situation in which a woman was subjugated by males, her father, brother or close male relatives when she was a virgin and her husband when she became a wife. As a matter of custom, she came to be regarded as little more than a piece of property. According to Frymer-Kensky (2004) low status of women in society is reflected in condemnations. A woman had no voice in her marriage. Originally the Hebrew monarchy was an attempt also to maintain the old tradition in a centralized state (Miller 43). Israel loved to think of David as the shepherd lad who, through sheer personal ability, had raised himself first to high military rank and then to the throne itself.
To a late period in his reign he maintained that respect for human rights that nomad Israel had so valued. The story of his great sin with Bathsheba is one of the most significant in the Old Testament (Frymer-Kensky 185). the most important is that The Hebrew Bible mentions that a husband should listen to his wife: “An allegorical interpretation of Sarah as virtue allows him to speak of how it is that husbands like Abraham should listen to their wives” (Schering et al 133).
It is possible to say that women are depicted as passive and subdued. The passivity of woman in this interpretation deprives her of feminine sacred power. Her human power and dignity are negated. Rather than being impossible without woman, the saving act becomes impossible without a male deity who mercifully lowers himself to the human condition. The Bible shifted the basis of the social foundation-from blood kinship to fellowship in a community of believers, from loyalty to the tribe to that of the extended family as its basic unit. For instance, “Verse 24 explains the change of tribal identity connected with marriage.” 2.
Verse 24 explains marriage as an institution (whether patriarchal/patrilocal or matriarchal /matrilocal is debated)” (Schearing et al 30). A strong family meant recognition not only of male rights but of female rights as well. This realization can be seen in family law in the areas of marriage, divorce and inheritance. Following Bach: “Male control of female reproductive powers in conjunction with patrilocal monogamous marriage (for the wife) secures the wife as her husband ‘s exclusive property and ensures the continuity of his name” (134).
The Hebrew Bible considers marriage, which is an important safeguard for chastity, to be incumbent on every man and woman unless they are physically or financially unable to lead conjugal life. Through marriage, the woman engages in an activity that is life-affirming rather than life-denying. Marriage is central to the growth and stability of the basic unit of society (Miller 65).
The Hebrew Bible mentions two women heroes who play an important role in understanding and evaluation of the role of women in society. The book of Ruth have two main themes: redemption and hesed. The main problem is that Ruth was strong enough to marry her to a brother-in-law, Boaz. “Looking at Ruth, a structuralist might focus on the widely noted cross-cultural problem of endogamy (marriage within the group) versus exogamy (marriage with someone from outside the group).” (Bach 219).
Critics admit that it is probable that in early times levirate marriage was not limited to a brother-in-law, that it neither required nor excluded full marriage, and that it neither required nor excluded the unmarried condition of the levirate partner. The Bible states:
And Ruth said: ‘Entreat me not to leave thee, and to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God” (the Hebrew Bible Ruth 15).
The Jews of the besieged tribe sent someone to negotiate peace, but Muhammad would not accept unless they left all their property behind and moved out. Each family or household was permitted to take along only a camel-load of their necessities excluding silver or gold wares (Miller 93).
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The Book of Esther raised women’s status and equality, represented some of the most radical departures from law. The Book of Esther is an historical novel used to account for the Jewish Festival of Purim. It has had, through the centuries, extraordinary popularity amongst the Jews, especially during times of bitter persecution. The story itself is without historical foundation, but the local color is correct enough. The figure of Esther shows that the Bible granted every wife the right to support or maintenance. The story tells:
And the king said again unto Esther on the second day at the banquet of wine: ‘Whatever thy petition, queen Esther, it shall be granted thee; and whatever thy request, even to the half of the kingdom, it shall be performed.’ Then Esther the queen answered and said: ‘If I have found favour in thy sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be given me at my petition, and my people at my request” (the Hebrew Bible Esther 2).
However, the opinion caused great inequity since the husband’s responsibility for maintenance only specified present maintenance, and not past-due maintenance that he had not provided, unless a distinct agreement concerning this was previously made. Thus, even in the most extreme cases of non-support, a wife lacked the right to sue for divorce. “A woman who divorces, or takes a lover, is often assumed to be public property” (Bach 328).
Before marriage, the woman was a property of her father. The contract of marriage considerably raised the status of a woman in society by making her a party to the marriage agreement rather than an object for sale. Thus, following Schearing et al (1999): “Genesis i, however, is neither for nor against women’s equality” (17). Since it was customary in an agrarian society to marry at an early age, the allowance of marriage at puberty was appropriate to the social situation. ”In ancient Israel, the function of marriage was to guarantee legitimate offspring for a lineage and to consolidate or maintain the wider social structure” (Meyers and Craven 48). Great emphasis was placed on the value of many children which a young wife with many child-bearing years ahead could more easily provide (Frymer-Kensky 186).
The Hebrew Bible pays a special attention to the concept of the fertilized virgin. Critics admit that if viewed as mythological, may also constitute an early, patriarchal, Christian effort to delimit the powerful independence associated with goddess traditions of “pagan” neighbors and the virginity of the goddess. Bach states: “Her father had the option to refuse her to him, in which case the seducer must pay a frill Virgin ‘s brideprice” (296).
Thus, a woman’s role has traditionally been an elevated one, it has also functioned as the proverbial pedestal on which woman is idealized in compensation for the oppression of real women. A distinguishing feature of law is the power that it bestows upon the father or grandfather who can contract a valid marriage for minors which cannot be annulled at puberty. The inability of minors to repudiate the marriage seems to rest on the jurists’ assumption that fathers and grandfathers who are fond of their offspring would not have sinister motives in arranging their marriages (Frymer-Kensky 186). If the marriage was contracted negligently or fraudulently, or by someone other than the father or grandfather, it can be repudiated by the minor when he or she attains puberty (Olsen 92).
A somewhat less important doctrine regarding marriage is the rule of equality which states that a marriage is a suitable union in law if the man is equal in social status to the woman. However, this obligation does not apply to the woman, since she is considered to be raised to the husband’s position by marriage. In law, equality is a necessary condition determined by
- good character, and
- means: A marriage that does not favorably meet these criteria is not necessarily void (Frymer-Kensky 186).
The judge must carefully exercise his discretion in determining whether to annul the marriage on the basis that it was a mésalliance. “Religiously neither civil marriage nor civil divorce can be recognized, unless supplemented by marriage or divorce according to religious forms” (Schearing et al 403).
Maintenance, another important obligation of the husband, includes food, clothing, and lodging. Maintenance is the husband’s primary obligation, regardless of his wife’s private means. Through the characters of Sarah, Rebecah, Leah and Rachel, the Hebrew Bible portrays that the wife has first preference for maintenance over her children. “Commentators often have discussed God’s intentions for gender relations in light of the relationship between Sarah and Abraham.
Particularly important have been the descriptions of God telling Abraham to “do whatever Sarah says to you”” (Schearing et al 135). The husband’s obligation begins when his wife reaches puberty and continues unless she refuses him conjugal rights or is otherwise disobedient since, in return for her maintenance, the wife owes the husband her faithfulness and obedience (Frymer-Kensky 334). However, if her behavior is caused by non-payment or the necessity of leaving her husband’s house because of his cruelty, maintenance must still be paid.
“The Hebrew women were also subject to much hardship through polygamy, and the right of divorce, which belonged to their husband. It is, however, in heathen and savage countries that the rule of man over the ” (Schearing et al 328). A wife is also entitled to maintenance following a divorce, and if she ceases to menstruate before the completion of this period, the wife is entitled to maintenance.
The Hebrew Bible mentions free women living outside marriage. “In the family, women are not normally free to operate for extended periods outside this sphere. The well-known exceptions are the widow, the prostitute, and the hierodule” (Bach 10). However, a widow does not receive maintenance following her husband’s death since maintenance is considered to be inconsistent with her position as an heir (Frymer-Kensky 254). If the husband refuses to pay maintenance, the wife has the right to sue for it. Also, “women’s cultic service seems to have been confined largely to maintenance and support roles, essential to the operation of the cultus but not requiring clergy status-or prescription in texts concerned with ” (Bach 10).
In sum, The Hebrew Bible gives much information about the role of women in society and their rights. We perceive women and their importance through marriage and relations with men. The picture of a common woman like Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel is structured and traditional. The Hebrew Bible stipulates that the wife’s main obligation involves maintaining a home, caring for her children, and obeying her husband. He is entitled to exercise his marital authority by restraining his wife’s movements and preventing her from showing herself in public. This restriction of the wife mirrors the prevailing medieval social customs of veiling and seclusion of women, practiced in order to protect their honor.
Bach, A. Women in the Hebrew Bible. Routledge; 1 edition, 1999.
Gross, C. Feminism and Religion Beacon Press; 2 edition, 1996.
Frymer-Kensky, T. Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories. Schocken, 2004.
The Hebrew Bible. 2007. Web.
Meyers, C., Craven, T. Women in Scripture. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001.
Miller, F. A. Quick Scripture Reference for Counseling Women Baker Books; Spiral edition, 2002.
Olsen, C. Book of the Goddess. New York, 1989.
Schearing, L.S., Ziegler, V.H., Kvam, K.F. Eve & Adam: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Readings on Genesis and Gender. Indiana University Press, 1999.