By Vexen Crabtree 2014
“You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
In the Bible, women have a special place - as objects of beauty and as possessions. In nearly every mention of any female in the Bible, she is not even given a name, and is described as "daughter of" or "wife of" a named man. She is first owned by her father until she is given to a new owner as his wife. Some sociologists have described the position of women in traditional religious communities to be no better than that of slaves1.
In Exodus 20:17 and Deuteronomy 5:21 men are warned against jealously "coveting" other men's possessions - which includes wives. These verses form part of what is commonly called the 10 Commandments. Yet strangely, women are themselves not told what they cannot covet. This is because women are not the controlling agent; they are the object, not the subject of these verses. In God's scheme in the Hebrew Scriptures that formed the Old Testament, God spoke to men, and men owned women. Therefore God rarely needed to speak to women.
Women in the Bible are owned objects, and, are defined by their owner. For example, take Leviticus 22:12-13: If a priest's daughter marries a non-believer, then, she is no longer welcome at religious events. It doesn't matter if she remains loyal to her beliefs - what matters are her husband's beliefs. If she is then widowed or divorced, and returns home, then, she is welcome again. What restrictions are there on a priest's son, if he marries a non-believing woman? None, of course. He's her owner, and he can do what he wants with her, and, he's the one that matters. Such are the unfortunate teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures.
These scriptures had a deleterious effect on Jewish culture and on Christian culture, and indirect long-term effects of this objectification continue today in much of the West (although in much milder form, now much of Europe has rejected religion). One critic writes that in Judaism "women are never referred to as persons, merely as property, and to see why, you must read the Bible"2. Some more examples of the objectification of women follow:
Genesis 12:11-19 has Abraham travel to Egypt with his beautiful wife Sarah. He tricks the Pharaoh into taking her as a wife by pretending that he was Sarah's brother rather than her husband. Sarah, belonging to Abraham, has no choice but to go along with it, and becomes the Pharaoh's. Abraham is given many gifts, and servants, and animals as a result (Genesis 12:16, Genesis 13:1). Rewarded for his lies and making a mockery of marriage, Abraham is left to his own devices. God and Abraham, male father figures, holy and righteous, both treating Sarah as an object to be indulged in. God, strangely, punishes the Pharaoh (who is the victim of the lie): "The LORD inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram's wife Sarai" (Genesis 12:17). When the Pharaoh realizes that Sarah is Abraham's wife, he gives his belonging back to her former owner, Abraham. No comment is made on this; God does not punish Abraham for his lie, nor take away the wealth he accumulated in the process, nor condemn the adultery, nor condemn the passing around of Sarah as an object (and investment). Such is the morality of the Bible when it comes to women - their concerns and lives rarely matter.
Zipporah, wife of Moses, is sent away before the exodus (Exod. 18:2), and later her father brings her and her two sons to see Moses in his camp. Moses greets Jethro enthusiastically, bowing and kissing, and asking each other's welfare. Moses accepted Jethro into his tent, where they exchanged long stories (Exodus 18:5-11) and performed some religious rituals together (18:12) which ends the day. Zipporah, his wife, was not greeted, not invited into his tent, not part of the religion, and not really part of the narrative at all, being simply part of Moses' belongings.
Women are often simply the booty of war, and there are many verses aside from the infamous Numbers 31:17-18, 32-35 that describe women (and female children) in that way. See Deut. 20:14-15 for a typical example, and Deut. 21:10-13 on the correct procedures for abducting a woman, enslaving her, and marrying her, if she takes the fancy of a male fighter. Although Deut. 21:14 gives some women some leniency: if you have raped them but decide that she's not pleasurable enough, then you not allowed to also sell them on "because thou has humbled her". No, if these female objects are to be sold, then, you can't rape or force them to marry you first. Such a nice book, the Bible is!
Deuteronomy explains the situation in which if a husband dies, the wife is not allowed to marry anyone except the deceased man's brother (although it is a fair bet that if the brother doesn't want her, then the deal is off). As this and many other laws made it into Canon law, Stanton points out that it's not just an issue of history: Parliament (in 1898) still debated and wrangled over the application of these sexist Christian laws3.
In Judges 14:1-4 the Biblical hero Samson (and his parents) all treat the object of his desire as some object to be claimed and "secured".
Stanton (1898) says that "the Hebrew mythology does not gild the season of courtship and marriage with much sentiment or romance. The transfer of a camel or a donkey from one owner to another, no doubt, was often marked with more consideration than that of a daughter. One loves a faithful animal long in our possession and manifests more grief in parting than did these Hebrew fathers in giving away their daughters"4. She notes that the words "beget" (as it is translated), which occurs frequently during description of family relations in the Bible, is always used of men. Men do the begetting, women are the ones who are begotten5..
Women As Beautiful Objects: To highlight their lesser worth, women's positive attributes in the Bible are normally to do with household duties and beauty6. For example the description of Job's daughters is that "Job had three daughtes. God adorned them with great beauty, no women being so fair as were the daughters of Job" (Job 42:13-15).
Marriage Restrictions on Outsiders: The Bible has many rules on marriage. In particular, its primary concern is about marriage to non-believers. Most laws are directed, in particular, at who men should take as their wives. The important issue is what religious beliefs sons will have. The implications are that women don't choose husbands, and, that it doesn't really matter what beliefs daughters have because they get told what's what by their fathers. For a full description of relevant verses from the Bible, see: "Marriage: Its Diversity and Character: 4.3. Dogmas About Marrying Outsiders From the Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Bible" by Vexen Crabtree (2004).
Hebrew Culture was famed for its male-centric structure. All of the histories written by the Hebrews were stories about men. About fathers and sons. Women are of course talked about, and, with rare exceptions, they are talked about as owned objects. All of this sounds very familiar. According to the Hebrew Scriptures, by an astounding coincidence, it happens that the eternal God of the Universe happens to have the exact same approach to women! This amazing stroke of luck is proof of only one thing - something long suspected by anthropologists everywhere: The Scriptures were the result of human (male) culture, written by human men with male interests at heart. It was invented by humans, not god, and it presents rules based on the biases of human culture, not based on divine law.
Traditional Religions and Women in General:
Most religious traditions have subjugated womankind7,8,9. The religious restrictions and taboos on womankind have ranged from the openly oppressive and inhumane, to subtle limitations. Women have been barred from leadership, prevented from religious learning and even from secular education, forbidden to hold power, denied fair inheritance and land ownership, denigrated, physically dominated, and sometimes even forbidden to speak10. All in accordance with holy texts, religious laws and guidelines. The Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam have been the worse; but also Hinduism and Buddhism have played roles in the long-term subjugation of women. In Elizabeth Cady Stanton's "The Woman's Bible" (1898) she bemoans that "all the religions on the face of the earth degrade her, and so long as woman accepts the position that they assign her, her emancipation is impossible"11. The much more neutral scholar of comparative religion, Moojan Momen, normally writes positively on nearly all aspects of religion, but when it comes to women, even he is forced into a multiple-page criticism of the historical role of religion12. Although some of this stems from ancient cultural sources before it happened to be codified in world religions13, organized religion has clung on to patriarchalism long after secular society has liberalized. Feminist groups have frequently been anti-religion simply because it is religion that has presented itself as the most consistent oppressor of womankind. The problems from traditional religions are not just historical: even today, religious organisations and powerful international religious lobbies hold back gender equality across the world14.
There is good news. The most readily accepted cure for both intolerance, religion and superstition is widely shown to be education. The position of women improves as education improves and as traditional religions lose their grip on society. Modern society has come to either ignore their traditional texts (as most Christians do) or to abandon religion (as many Westerners have done). Also many new religious movements and alternative religions such as Paganism, Wicca, the New Age and even Satanism practice full gender equality. As long as traditional religions continue to decline and secular society and new religions both grow, the situation of women continues to improve.”
The page menu for Religion Versus Womankind reads:
Current edition: 2014 Nov 02
Parent page: Christianity
Religion Versus WomankindWomen as Possessions and Objects of Beauty in the BibleJudaism, Christianity and Women: Biblical Misogyny and Historical SubjugationWhy Do Women Have to Cover Their Hair in Judaism, Christianity and Islam?Islam and Women
All #tags used on this page - click for more:
The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. Book Review.
(1986) The Gospel According to Woman: Christianity's Creation of the Sex War in the West. Hardback book. Subtitled: "Christianity's Creation of the Sex War in the West". Published by Elm Tree Books/Hamish Hamilton Ltd, London, UK.
Clarke, Peter B.. Peter B. Clarke: Professor Emeritus of the History and Sociology of Religion, King's College, University of London, and currently Professor in the Faculty of Theology, University of Oxford, UK.
(2011) The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion. Paperback book. Originally published 2009. Current version published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
(1987, Ed.) The Encyclopedia of Religion. Hardback book. Published by Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, USA. 16 huge volumes. Eliade is editor-in-chief. Entries are alphabetical, so, no page numbers are given in references, just article titles.
Hawthorne, Sîan. Hawthorn is Lecturer in Critical Theory and the Study of Religions and Chair of the Centre of Gender and Religions Research at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, UK.
(2011) Religion and Gender. This essay is chapter 7 of "The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion" by Peter B. Clarke (2011).
What it meant and what is means: feminism, religion and interpretation (2001), chapter 3 of "Religion and Social Transformations" by D. Herbert (2001).
(2007) Fundamentalism. Originally published 2005. Current version published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. New edition now published as part of the “Very Short Introduction” series.
Stanton, Elizabeth C.. (1815-1902)
(1898) The Woman's Bible. E-book. Amazon Kindle digital edition produced by Carrie Lorenz and John B. Hare.