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Israeli History, Biblical Criticism, and the Significance of the Creation Stories to Women's Studies

Israel of the “Old” Testament

In Barbara S. Lesko’s essay, “Women of Egypt and the Ancient Near East,” she introduces readers to the ancient culture that contributed the Bible, perhaps the most influential book of the last three millennia, to western civilization. By the thirteenth century B. C. E., Lesko explains, the Israelites inhabited the hill country on both sides of the Jordan river, either as settlers or nomads.  Their history was dominated by warfare, perhaps because the land was poor for agriculture making the economy frail.  She points out that even periods of strong centralized rule--such as that of King David who founded the capital, created a standing army, and united quarrelsome tribes into a united kingdom--were marked by political coups.  

Lucas Cranach, the Elder's Adam and Eve, 1533

The society, Lesko explains, was governed on the basis of religious law that had been handed down to Moses by God.  Old Testament Israel had a patriarchal family structure featuring a patrilineal descent and a patrilocal residence, which was reinforced and institutionalized by its laws.  Membership in the greater society, she explains, whether in the sociopolitical or religious realms outside the home fell exclusively to men.  Only men were deemed responsible individuals, and ,as such, were considered responsible for the acts of their dependents. 

Lesko explains that only when they were married and became the mothers of children did Hebrew women gain any authority over other people.  In her role as mother, the Hebrew woman gained status and honor equivalent to a man's, but she remained always subject to the authority of some male relative. Lesko points to biblical proof that defines the ideal woman, in terms of her gender role, for the culture.  She explains that a "good wife" was . . . industrious, wise, prudent, gracious.  She taught her children, planted and maintained a vineyard, and enhanced her husband's reputation through her virtue.  She was regarded as a natural and god-ordained helpmate to her husband.”  In some cases, these laws can seem as harsh as Sumerian or Assyrian laws regarding women’s behaviors.  Lesko notes:

Sex, for women, belonged to the marriage bed and even a girl who had been raped had to become, or be treated as, the wife of her attacker (Exod. 21:7-11, Duet. 21:10-14).
A bride found not to be a virgin could be stoned to death by elders of the town.  
An adulterous wife could expect death as a punishment (although infidelity by the husband with harlots was tolerated--but not encouraged--and polygamy gained acceptance--but not with enthusiasm).
A woman could never divorce her husband, but a husband could set his wife aside, although he could not divorce her without substantial cause.

Some laws treated women as property of men, Lesko notes, although they were not legally chattels.  While economically and socially subordinated to men, Hebrew women were not bound to obey their husbands--at least the Old Testament does not state that a woman must do so.

A man could sell his daughter into slavery for up to six years in order to pay his debts (Exod. 21;2, 21:7).
Only a few women (those without brothers) could inherit property since sons, if there were any, inherited everything from their parents.  The woman who did inherit still had to marry within her tribe so the inheritance fell to her husband.

Lesko reveals that men also dominated religiously.  Circumcision was an important initiation rite (and also had many practical advantages for health), but women, because of the basic sex differences between themselves and males, were excluded.  On top of that, Lesko reviews the purity laws, which deemed a woman impure for seven days each month (Lev. 12:1, 15:18-33) and made the priesthood a male profession, as did the long and complex postparturient purification which followed each pregnancy.  That a woman who gave birth to a female child required twice as long a time for purification (Lev. 12:1-5)is another example Lesko recounts to show the culture’s institutionalized male supremacy or misogyny. 

Man, she explains, represented the religious authority for his wife and children in sacrificial rites.  While there were prophetesses like Miriam, Deborah, and Huldah who spoke for Yahweh (God) and received honor for it, Lesko believes that they still cannot be considered cultic authorities or connected with the sanctuary and officiating the ritual.  For this reason, perhaps, she reasons, foreign cults from Babylon attracted the veneration of some women from ancient Israel (Jer. 7:8, 44:15-19, and Is. 17:10).

Lesko notes that the Old Testament does contain stories of women who save their people or cities from catastrophes through leadership and courage--Abigail, Esther, Judith, Jael--indicating that in times of crisis women found identity and inspiration independent of gender roles.  Normally, however, she explains quoting Phyllis Bird, when Old Testament women became visible, it was "as a dependent and usually an inferior in a male-centered and male-dominated society" (73).   

This was probably not a conscious effort by men to attain and retain superiority, she explains. Male strength, vigilance, and domination doubtlessly appeared necessary for the security of Israel's state throughout a tumultuous and war-torn history, and women, as a group, consequently became the state's least effective members. 

Lesko concludes her discussion on ancient Israel by pointing out an irony in regard to ancient Israel and it philosophies and practices: “the main object of the state was to secure justice and to respect the worth of the human spirit, yet the spirit of its women was strictly kept in check.  The prophets did not challenge the inferior status of women any more than they railed against the institution of slavery” (73-74).

A Critical Approach to the Bible 

The texts of the Old Testament include many literary genres--proverbs and hymns, sermons and instructions, law and history, etc.--and span almost a thousand years.  Not unusually, they reveal diversity (and complexity) in attitudes about women. Before we look directly at the text, we need to establish certain aspects (or ground rules) necessary for the discussion and study of these texts as works of literature and as artifacts of history.  We will see that, like the creation myths of Sumer, Egypt, Greece, and Rome, these reflect ideas about the nature of gender as understood by the citizens of those cultures. The Bible requires extra explanation because for many people of our modern American society, it is not just a work of art or an artifact of history but also a tangible symbol of and instrument for their religious faith.                                                                              

Biblical Scholarship

A common misunderstanding is the thought that the Bible is a single, complete, and integral document, unchanged and unchanging, which transcends the conditions of life on Earth.  Although the Bible may be the product of divine inspiration and although it may be regarded in its entirety as God's revelation, we will acknowledge in and for this class that God did not put a single word of it on paper (and God, especially, did not dictate the King James version of the Bible). 

As we delve a bit into the study of the Bible, it is important to keep an open mind.  Some people have the idea that anything printed is the truth, especially in the Bible, the most sacred of books, at least in Western tradition.  When applied to the Bible, this is called Biblical inerrancy, the idea that there are NO errors in the Bible.  This idea forces people to make sense of the senseless. 

In this class we'll view the Bible as a literary and historical document.  The Bible is a common heritage of all of us in Western culture.   

Whether or not one believes that the writers of the Biblical texts were under divine inspiration, one can still recognize the complexity of biblical authors.  While certain pieces seem to be the product of the person whose name they bear, an in-depth bibliographic study, or Biblical exegesis, (made more exact by recent increased access to archeological and epigraphical materials from the Near East) will show that the forms they take--the arrangement and selection of the pieces--seem to have been the work of others.   

The best example of this complexity is the Pentateuch, which contains material from at least four different sources. 

The Bible is an anthology.  Its "Old" Testament alone contains a myriad of diverse forms: psalms, laments included; ceremonial recitals; historical recitals; pacts; prophetic oracles; ancient patriotic poetry, including victory songs; wisdom sayings; apocalypse; narratives, including etiologies (origins), birth narratives, miracles, theophanies (when God appears to faithful), and hero stories.   Likewise, its documents contain plentiful examples of figurative language: hyperbole, metaphor, symbolism, allegory, personification, irony, wordplay (puns), poetry (a third of which doesn't translate from Hebrew).   

The Bible, more than anything else, is a chronicle of history--it's the story of the birth and growth, decline, and hope of the Israeli people.  It's important to remember that its laws and principles of behavior are delivered from within a historical framework.   

The first division of the Hebrew scriptures, is called the Pentateuch (five scrolls, Greek) or Torah (teaching; or less properly, the Law) and covers the first seven hundred years--roughly 1950-1250 B. C. E.)--of Israel's existence.  It underwent many changes during history, "finally" becoming shaped into a "salvation history" around 5th century B. C. E. to give its people hope, despite their diminished circumstances.  It contains five books, hence its name:






Raphael's God Separates Light from Darkness, 1517

Traditionally, it is thought of as the "teaching" that God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai, written by Moses for the following generations, BUT nowhere in the text itself is there that claim.  Biblical and critical scholars have long questioned the veracity of this "Mosaic" assertion for some time.  Hobbes, Spinoza, Richard Simon, Jean Astruc, and others have picked up on "discrepancies" or "clues," which indicate that Moses did not write it: he wasn't there for Adam and Eve, for instance, and "he" refers to "his" present as past, and there are the same stories repeated, and there are the same stories with contradictions, and there is some information there that Moses could not have known.

Biblical scholars (mostly priests) have grappled with these issues for centuries.  There was religious opposition to these studies (they questioned tradition) throughout the centuries until the 20th century when in 1943 Pope Pius XII appealed for investigation into the truth as a way to strengthen Christian (and Catholic) understanding of religion. 

When the sources are the product of an oral, collaborative tradition, as the so-called J and E texts allegedly are, the complexity is increased. This is further complicated by the work of redactors, people who made up finished versions of the texts out of "original" pieces (perhaps different alternate versions, partial versions, or a nearly complete version).  Redactors may select, arrange, add links, insert explanations, or create their own narrative or framework in displaying the text.  To make things even more complex, one redactor's finished version can become another redactor's base or partial text. 

The Documentary theory holds that a long process of creating, revising, deleting, editing, creating, etc. by a great number of people at various historical times produced the Bible. This should help explain the contradictions--to increase understanding and validate the text, either for believers or skeptics.

A biblical scholar and former nun, Karen Armstrong, admits that "We cannot treat the Bible as a holy encyclopedia where we can look up information about the divine, because we are likely to find contradictory data in the very next chapter." Her theory is that by “presenting readers with more than one story, the editors were demonstrating that no one human account can ever comprise the whole of divine truth." 

The creation stories illustrate this theory well.  When one reads the first chapters in Genesis, one finds two contradictory tales about creation, tales which explain what god created and in what order.  The order of creation of men and women has been used historically to justify women’s lower status in society.

The first (Genesis 1-2:4) employs verbal repetition and is precisely and regularly organized (poetic).  The acts of creation are set in parallel form.  It is austere, dignified, solemn, almost ritualistic.  No word is used carelessly.   
The second story is no less skillful, but it is more down-to-earth.  It uses vivid imagery to appeal to the mind's eye.  The creator is an actor in a drama, who physically comes to Earth and breathes life into clay to create Adam.  (Hebrew verb yatsar is the same one that would be used for a potter molding or shaping a vessel.)  It is etiological and incomplete; it brings man to the threshold of history.  The first implies no sequel; it's complete in itself.

Note that each story presents the created in a different sequence:

Order of Creation Genesis 1-2:4 Genesis 2:5+
Man and Woman

In Genesis 1:27-28 in modern translations male pronouns are used--but in the ancient Hebrew language no pronouns are associated with verbs. "He" created refers to God, but the HE reflects translators' views of the world and religion. The meaning of the passage: simultaneous creation of men and women. 

In Genesis 2:7 the “man” in the text comes from the Hebrew adamah meaning from the earth; no masculine or feminine status is contained in the word. When translating these texts into Greek and Latin, however; the translators made masculine choices.  The fact remains however that the original writers did not intend a gender association there. Man = earth creature, no gender association is involved. 

In Genesis 2:23, our version tells us that woman is second; however, the word still means “earth creations.”  The woman in Hebrew is ishshah, while man is ish.  This is the first time gender is associated with the creations.  Inherently there is  no unequal status as yet. In fact, Phyllis Trible, a noted feminist biblical scholar, tells us, first, that this was a pun; the writers were having fun with the words, and, then, that meaning was created in cyclical constructions in ancient Hebrew.  The most important points were often given first and last. With this knowledge of the language, many of the traditional interpretations about Eve’s (and thus women’s) status as a subordinate to Adam have to be re-examined.  

                         The Various Sources of "Old" Testament Biblical Writings 

Explanation: there are (at least) four sources of the material in the torah:

Source Name Characteristics Time
J Yahwist Anthropomorphic presentation of the deity

Dramatic narratives

Uses Yahweh as the name of God 

10th Century B. C. E.
E Elohist Uses Elohim as the name of God 9th-8th Centuries B. C. E.
D Deuteronomic Found only in the book of Deuteronomy 622 B. C. E.
P Priestly Overriding interest in ritual legislation 538-400 B. C. E.
R Redactors Many different times over the history of the Bible

Scholars believe that the P source was last, although it's the first encountered in Genesis.  They seem to have projected back to an idealized time, before controversy--other sources will recognize and denounce certain rituals like animal sacrifice.  These P writers and redactors did not attempt to avoid inconsistencies or duplications; they told their story and maintained the "original."  It was written and compiled either during or shortly after the Babylonian Exile. 

The J source is thought to be older (redacted by the Ps along with the E texts) and that its texts were initially transmitted orally (like those of Homer) before ever being recorded in written form.  Thought to have originated in the southern part of Palestine, it contains a cultural heritage carefully preserved: genealogies (like Beowulf and The Odyssey) and attention-holding devices.  

The E source is thought to have originated in the north, in what became the kingdom of Israel.  It enters the Pentateuch late, at Genesis 20 and tends to portray the deity as reserved; in its texts, God does not appear to people in person but communicates through dreams and angles, etc. was joined to the J source at around the early 7th century B.C. when refugees fled from Israel to Judah following the Assyrian conquest. 

The D source seems to have been composed of lost sacred writings discovered in the renovation of the Temple by King Josiah in 622 B.C.  This writing tends to be solemn, deliberate, and eloquent, and it stresses the requirement of total obedience to God.  At times, these writing contradict earlier Mosaic law.  It was added to the JE text to produce the JED text and formed what is now Joshua through 2 Kings.  Like the P writers, the D writers wanted his interpretation included and added it to the other writings. 

This is all important, of course, because throughout time the creation stories have been used to "prove" women's inferiority, especially by members of patriarchal societies. Perhaps the patriarchal elements are there because in the recorders of these narratives could not envision any other way of life, or perhaps they are merely there to explain what seems unjust or unexplainable (like women's intense pain in childbirth.) Eventually, these stories became tools, as we shall see, for use in the subordination of women, and very possibly became different stories, as well, as translations introduced new meanings and as different cultures applied them to their unique and far-removed-from Ancient Israel's circumstances. 

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Contact Kimberly M. Radek, the instructor of Women in Ancient Cultures, at Kimberly_Radek@ivcc.edu

This page was last updated on 08 June 2007 . Copyright Kimberly M. Radek, 2001.