Thursday, March 6, 2008

Women in the Law, Part 2

Part 2 continues my overview of the content of the Law of Moses as it relates to women and the female experience. Again, please note that I have organized this treatment according to subject matter first and then in sequential order as the laws appear in the code.

Lev 12:1-8 - When a woman gives birth to a son, she will be ceremonially unclean for seven days until the circumcision and then for another 33 days to be “purified from her bleeding” (v. 4a; presumably the bleeding associated with childbirth). But, if she gives birth to a daughter, she will be ceremonially unclean for 14 days, like during her menstruation, and then another 66 days to be “purified from her bleeding” (v. 5b).

In this reasoning, somehow the birth of a daughter makes a woman more ceremonially unclean than the birth of a son. Or, in reverse, the birth of a son makes a woman less ceremonially unclean than the birth of a daughter. In either case, the laws differ for a woman’s restoration to cleanness and “atonement” after childbirth depending upon the sex of her child (v. 8). Unfortunately, one cannot help but conclude from this passage that daughters are significantly less desirable than sons, although this is certainly not new information about the ancient near east (ANE).

Sex Crimes
Lev 18:6-30 – Leviticus 18 contains an extensive list of those sex acts, which are defiling and forbidden to the people of Israel. According to v. 24, “the nations” defile themselves in these ways and, therefore, Israel should not follow suit. The summation of these rules as they relate to women is found in v. 6: “No one is to approach any close relative to have sexual relations.” This means that a man cannot have intercourse with his mother, his wife’s mother, his sister, his sister-in-law, his daughter, his aunt, his cousins, etc. If enforced, theoretically this law can serve to protect women from sexual harassment and abuse by members of her family and extended family.

Deut 22:13-21 – This passage instructs that when a man takes a wife, consummates the marriage, but them becomes displeased with her and accuses her of not being a virgin, the woman’s father and mother must bring “proof” of her virginity before the town elders (presumably the sheets from the marriage bed displaying the blood from her broken hymen). If the proof is presented, then the man will be fined “a hundred shekels of silver” for his slander and give the money to the woman’s father for dishonoring his family. Moreover, he will not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives.

Yet, if no proof of the woman’s virginity can be produced, then she “shall be brought to the door of her father's house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death” (v. 21). She must be stoned because she had dishonored her father’s house and the evil must not be allowed to remain in Israel. Practically speaking, this means that even if the woman is innocent, if the woman’s hymen was broken in childhood, or if there was simply no blood in the marriage bed, then the accused wife may die of stoning despite her innocence. This prospect is more than a little frightening to say the least.

Deut 22:22 – This law is straightforward and short enough to merit a direct quote: “If a man is found sleeping with another man's wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die. You must purge the evil from Israel.” It is interesting to note that in the story of the woman caught in adultery, located in John 8, only the adulterous woman was brought forward to be stoned—the man was nowhere to be found.

Deut 22:23-29 – In the matter of rape, I must admit that I find the law quite unpleasant to say the least. If a man sleeps with a betrothed woman in a town, but no one hears the woman screaming for help, then it is concluded that she cooperated with the adultery willingly, and both parties are to be stoned.

Yet, if a man sleeps with a betrothed woman in the country, because there is no one to hear her screaming for help, then it is concluded that she was raped and did not cooperate with the act of adultery. The man is the only one who must die, while the woman is not to be condemned (v. 26). Also, notice that the reason for the man’s stoning is that he “violated another man’s wife” (v. 24). The violation is against the woman’s husband, not the woman.

Finally, if a man rapes a virgin who is not betrothed and “they are discovered” (v. 28b), then he must pay the woman’s father “fifty shekels of silver” (notice it is less than the fine for falsely accusing a woman of adultery in Deut 22:19). Again, the violation is against the man in custody of the woman, not the woman herself. Moreover, following the rape, he is required to marry the woman and is not permitted to divorce her as long as he lives (v. 29).

Certainly, the purpose of this law is to ensure that the raped woman suffers no further humiliation by being unable to marry due to her “defilement.” By forcing the rapist to marry her, the law is protecting the woman from being turned out by her family or treated as an adulterer by the community. Even so, do I really need to say how horrifying this scenario would be, for a rape victim to be forced to marry and bear children with her rapist?

Prisoners of War
Deut 21:10-14 – When the nation of Israel goes to war against an enemy and successfully defeats them, a soldier is permitted to take a “beautiful woman” from among the captives as a wife. After shaving her head, trimming her nails, taking away her old clothes, and giving her a month of mourning, then the soldier may consummate the marriage. But, if the soldier is displeased with her (whether after the month or after their consummation, it is not clear), then the captive woman must be allowed to leave freely. She may not be made into a slave or sold as a slave.

Presumably, this law is made to protect those women who were certainly taken as part of the spoils of war with other nations. Rather than allow for women to be taken and given without regard for their ordeal, soldiers are required to permit them a period of mourning and forbidden to sell them as slaves after taking them as a wife. Granted, this is surely better than the treatment of captive women in every other nation in the ANE. Even so, there is no denying what a horrific experience it would be for a woman captured in war to have to marry a man who participated in the destruction of her family and nation.

Numbers 27:1-11 – This is an exceedingly interesting case, with exceedingly interesting implications, which I anticipate will be discussed more fully in Part 3 of this series. For this reason, at this point I will merely summarize the events as they appear in the text.

The daughters of Zelophehad, who are named in the text (v. 1), appear before Moses, the priest, the tribal leaders, and the whole assembly at the tent of meeting. They present their case for judgment: “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not among Korah’s followers, who banded together against the Lord, but he died for his own sin and left no sons. Why should our father's name disappear from his clan because he had no son? Give us property among our father’s relatives” (v. 3).

In traditional patrilinear* inheritance practices (notice that there are no laws related to this in the Hebrew Scripture—the practices are merely assumed), the property of the patriarch must go to his sons. If he does not leave sons, it must go to the closest male relative. The problem with this for women, of course, is that they are left utterly dependent upon their male relatives for support when and if their father dies. So, the daughters of Zelophehad request of the leaders of Israel permission to inherit property along with their father’s relatives (a significant change in property law at this point), so that they may carry on their father’s name.

When Moses brings this case before God, God affirms the truth of the daughters’ concerns and instructs Moses: “You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father’s relatives and give their father’s inheritance to them” (v. 7). Moreover, building upon the need for justice in the case of these women, God goes on to declare a “new law,” so that when a man dies and leaves no son, his inheritance should be given to his daughters. Only then, if there are no daughters, should the inheritance go to his brothers, father’s brothers, or other next of kin (vv. 8-11).

I should note that this case is followed up on in Num 36 and it is added to the law that the daughters must marry within their tribe in order to retain their father’s inheritance (v. 6). If they marry outside their tribe, their inheritance goes to their father’s next male kin. Numbers 36:12 then notes that the daughters of Zelophehad, named again in the text, do as God instructs (vv. 10-12) and they retain their father’s inheritance within their tribe.

Check back later for Part 3, as I attempt to draw some conclusions regarding the Law of Moses as it applies to women and how we should understand the Law's perspective on women in light of the New Covenant and the coming Kingdom of God.

*Patrilinear refers to the nature of any society in which land, wealth, and inheritance are passed down through the father’s line. Because the society is patrilinear, the female is expected to join with the male’s family. This social construction is not limited to ancient Israel alone, but was foundational to all ANE cultures. (For more information, see Hennie J. Marsman, Women in Ugarit and Israel: Their Social and Religion Position in the Context of the Ancient Near East [Oudtestamentische StudiĆ«n; Leiden: Brill, 2003]).

In my opinion, the claim that patriarchy must be embraced simply because Israel exhibited a certain form of it, as depicted in Scripture, is to misunderstand the typical cultural assumptions evidenced in the social constructions of nearly all ANE societies. For more on this issue, see W. Dennis Tucker, Jr., “Women in the Old Testament and the Old Testament on Women: A Constructive Hermeneutic," unpublished paper, presented at George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Nov 9, 2006.


Debbie Kaufman said...

You can bet I'm going to check back. This stuff is terrific.

traveller said...

Emily, such good work! You are definitely gifted as a writer and teacher.....preacher, proclaimer, prophet....

You are getting to a very important point when you touch on the issue of the patriarchy of Israel and what it means, or more importantly, does not mean for those alive today who follow Jesus in his Way.

Looking forward to the next installment. This is a great topic as we near the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus and the new creation it brings.

How was your recent weekend with the women of your church?

Emily Hunter McGowin said...


Thanks for the encouragement. I hadn't considered how well this topic leads up to the freedom found in Christ at the resurrection. Good point!

The women's conference went very well. It was the first women's event our church has had in some time and it was a sweet time for all of us, I think. There were about 125 ladies there--a big deal for us--and I believe they received the Word very well.

I received a tremendous blessing as well from getting to minister to them--that is, letting God minister to them through me. Although I'm still not sure what the details are regarding my future ministry, I recognized true joy in my heart from proclaiming the Word to them.

Thank you so much for praying.

Grace and peace,


traveller said...


I am so pleased to learn your weekend was refreshing and rewarding.

I am currently in Africa where tomorrow will be a really huge day among the women here since it is International Womans Day. All the employers buy new dresses for their female employees so they can celebrate together. There will be a large parade and women will enjoy the day together.

Sadly, though the women of Africa remain greatly under oppression, largely from men. Whether it is rape, prostitution, patriarchy, high incidence of AIDS/HIV (many African men who already have the disease engage in sexual relations with young women who they believe are virgins because they believe it will cure their AIDS or prevent it), high incidence of death in child birth or economic and social discrimination, the rest of the year here is not so bright for women on the African continent.

I would encourage folks, especially men, to pray for the women of Africa and all the world on Saturday.

Mel said...

Deut 22:22 – This law is straightforward and short enough to merit a direct quote: “If a man is found sleeping with another man's wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die. You must purge the evil from Israel.” It is interesting to note that in the story of the woman caught in adultery, located in John 8, only the adulterous woman was brought forward to be stoned—the man was nowhere to be found.

And further interesting that when David takes Bathsheba, both are left alive. Just like today, a case of when you have a standing in the community or money or are in power, you avoid punishment (at least from society. Obviously God sees, knows, and acts.)

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Great point, Mel. I hadn't thought of that. It is certainly true that power and money tend to shield you from the Law--even the OT Law.