By Israel Drazin


Many people recognize that women have still not entirely succeeded in participating in society as they should. How were women portrayed in the Hebrew Bible? Professor Jennie R. Eberling answers this question in her very readable and informative 2010 book Women’s Lives in Biblical Times where she analyses biblical narrative, archeological finds, and dramatizes these findings with a story about the life of a fictional character Orah beginning around 1200 BCE and her descendants.  She shows that the Torah is male-oriented.


“The androcentric (male centered) nature of the Hebrew Bible is made clear in a count of personal names that appear in the text: of 1,426 names, 111 are women’s names, which is 9 percent of the total. The men who composed these texts were primarily concerned with the world of the urban male…. The extra-biblical textual sources from ancient Israel unearthed in archaeological excavations and explorations also show no indication of female authorship.” Eberling’s statement reflects the view that humans composed the Torah, not God. If we say that God revealed the Torah, it would seem that we would have to conclude that God dictated his Torah just for men.


Eberling mentions Torah rules and behaviors that favor men: “Marriage in ancient Israel had no religious component and was considered a civil contract” such as buying a house and its furniture. “There is no Hebrew word for wife; instead, the biblical writers used the common word for ‘woman’ – ‘isha – while husbands were frequently called ba’al, or ‘lord.’ This may suggest that the husband-wife relationship was characterized by the wife’s subordination.” She highlights the fact that in biblical marriages “the language used in the arrangements is male: a woman is given, taken, sent for, captured or even purchased in the case of a slave wife.” There are “biblical passages that depict women as chattel” where they are “listed as a man’s major possessions.”[1]


Yet, Eberling acknowledges that “nowhere is a man’s absolute sovereignty over his wife indicated in the biblical text.” Fathers and husbands cannot do everything they want with daughters and wives, as in ancient Roman law where fathers could kill daughters. Furthermore, despite the fact that Bible narratives generally portray women in a subordinate role, there are repeated examples of women taking the initiative and leading men to the goal the women desire. Eve led Adam to eat the forbidden fruit, Rebecca secured Isaac’s blessing for Jacob by trickery despite her husband’s contrary desire to bless Esau, daughters of Zelophehad persuaded Moses to change the traditional anti-feminist inheritance law, Yael killed the enemy general Sisera and saved the Israelites, and more.


Judaism’s greatest philosopher Maimonides (1138-1204) wrote,[2] the Torah had to recognize that it was dealing with a primitive group of recently emancipated slaves who were incapable of accepting radical behavioral changes and new ideas, no matter how noble or how right. The Torah could only introduce proper behavior with “successive and gradual development.” It is clear that the Torah recognized that slavery is inhuman, but the slow gradual development of human nature made it impossible for the Torah to forbid slavery immediately. So the Torah enacted rules, such as the length of slavery and required favorable treatment, to teach Israelites that slavery is wrong. A slave who wanted to remain enslaved after the prescribed time limit had to have his ear pierced on a door post. The rabbis explained[3] his ear was cut to remind him that God said: you are my slaves and not slaves to anyone else. The door is slashed, in my opinion, so that slave and owner should see the incision and be reminded each time they exit the house that they did wrong.


I suggest that the same thinking applies to the treatment of women. The Torah states that every human is created in the divine image, but ancient people couldn’t accept the implications of this fact: non-Israelites and women were improperly belittled.[4] But the Torah gives hints[5] that women are human just as men and should be treated humanely. It does this by its repeated showing that despite their enforced subordinate position in the family and society, women take the initiative and create desired results.


Eberling shows that the Hebrew bible is not entirely negative: there were biblical periods when women had leadership roles. She cites the biblical book Judges where women, such as the prophet and judge Deborah, led the Israelites. She quotes archeological findings that show that at that time women fulfilled “economic, social, political, and religious roles.” Thus the Bible is demonstrating in Judges, what it hinted in its narratives of female initiatives, that women should have the same rights as men and can lead successfully, even in military engagements, as Deborah did.


[1] She could have added the biblical law of vows. Biblical law forbids nullification of vows: when a man vows, he must keep it. It was only in post-biblical times that rabbis changed the law to allow vow repeals. Four tragic stories showing the inability to annul vows appear in the Bible. Joshua was unable to annul the vow he made to the Gbeonites in Joshua 9:19. Jephthah in Judges 11 led Israelites in a battle and vowed that if he was successful, he would sacrifice whatever met him when he returned home. He probably expected to be greeted by his dog, but his daughter greeted him, and since he could not terminate his vow, he had to sacrifice her. The tale of the tribe of Benjamin in Judges 21 is a third instance; the tribes were unable to nullify their vow not to marry their daughters to men of Benjamin. A fourth example is Isaac’s blessing of Jacob in Genesis 27; even though he wanted to bless his son Esau. Once he uttered the blessing he could not retract it even though it was a mistaken blessing and he wanted to change it. This law only applied to men, as indicted in Numbers 30.  A father can annul an unmarried girl’s vow because she is his possession and has no power of her own. A husband can do the same with his wife for the same reason. However a widow or divorcee who is unattached to a male must keep her vow and no one may nullify it.

[2] Guide of the Perplexed 3:32 where, among much else, Maimonides states that although God does not need or want sacrifices, the Torah “allowed these kinds of services to continue” because ancient people needed them.

[3] Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 22b.

[4] The poet Yehudah Halevi (1075-1141) argued that non-Jews are biologically inferior to Jews. The philosopher Gersonides (1288-1344) said that women are creatures between animals and men. Even the brilliant Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322) was persuaded by his culture’s mistreatment of women to believe that women were inferior to men in many ways. Maimonides was greatly influenced by Aristotle, as he says in the introduction to his Guide of the Perplexed, and reflected his view of women in many ways. Even the late fourth century Midrash Sifrei (Deuteronomy 157) mirrored the notions of its time and interpreted Deuteronomy 17’s statement that the Israelites should only place Israelites as kings to mean “but not queens,” for queens should not rule over men.

[5] Unfortunately for most people not explicit enough.