Copyright © 1979 Leonard Swidler

All rights reserved-no part of this book may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages in connection with a review in magazine or newspaper.

Excerpts from The Jerusalem Bible are copyright © 1966 by Darton, Longman & Todd, Ltd., and Doubleday & Company, Inc. Used by permission of Doubleday & Company, Inc.


First edition

Published by The Westminster Press

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data

Swidler, Leonard J

Biblical affirmations of woman

Includes index.

1. Women (Theology)-Biblical teaching.

2. Women in the Bible. 3. Woman (Theology)-

History of doctrines. 1. Title.




ISBN 0-664-21377-4

ISBN 0-664-24285-5 pbk.




Prologue: Women in the Ancient World







A. A Feminine God


B. Divine Lady Wisdom


C. The Feminine Divine Spirit





A. Jewish Feminine Imagery of the Divine


B. Feminine Holy Spirit in Christian Tradition


C. The Feminine God in Christian Apocryphal

and Gnostic Writings









A. The Status of Woman-Biblical Period


B. The Status of Woman-Postbiblical Period





A. Ambivalent Models of Women-Hebrew Bible

and Apocrypha


B. Ambivalent Models of Women-

Postbiblical Writings






A. Negative Images and Attitudes-Hebrew Bible


B. Negative Images and Attitudes-"Intertestamental"



C. Negative Images and Attitudes-Postbiblical Writings










A. The Apostolic Writings (New Testament)-

The Gospels


B. The Apostolic Writings (New Testament)-

Other Than the Gospels





A. Authentic Paul’s Ambivalent Attitude

Toward Women


B. Deutero-Pauline (and Other) Ambivalent

(and Some Negative) Attitudes Toward Women





A. Women and the Christian Fathers










In the past there have been a number of discussions of women in the Bible. At times they have been flawed by an apologetic approach that assumed, unconsciously or consciously, a male chauvinist perspective. In any case, they did not have the advantage of the raised collective consciousness and new insights resulting from the recent women’s liberation movement and its interaction with religion and theology. Usually the first result of this interaction has been the leveling of criticism at portions of the Judeo-Christian tradition for its sexism. This was not difficult to do as far as having sufficient subject matter was concerned; the Jewish and Christian traditions-as the traditions of every other world religion and parareligion-are extremely sexist. The cultures from which these religions sprang were strongly patriarchal, and the religions reflected those cultures. This sexism was also true of the Bible.

All Jewish and Christian biblical scholars, save the most fundamentalistic, insist on the humanness of the Scriptures, that they are human words spoken in a particular time, place, and culture, all of which limiting factors must be understood if the inspired revelation of God’s self is to be perceived through them. Gone from modern religious scholarship is the pre-critical notion that each word of the Bible was whispered in the inner ear of the inspired writer by God; the Bible is no longer perceived as inerrantly true word by word-only the inner religious message is, whatever it may be. Consequently the way is clear to point out critically the sexist patriarchal assumptions, structures, stories, sayings, etc., bountifully to be found in the Bible. This negative, critical task was surely the first that needed to be done-as in all creative reform efforts. And it has been done significantly, though of course the critical task needs to continue: Traditio religiosa semper reformanda!

However, in creative reform, an emphasis on the positive elements is also necessary as an early second task, even as the negative critical task proceeds. This positive reform task is by no means the same as the old defensive apologetic. Rather, it accepts, presumes, the proven negative criticisms and moves on to discern the true positive values in the tradition that can be used as building blocks in re-forming the inherited religious structures, adding on to them, or indeed, building new ones from the heritage of the old.

This book is an attempt to search out the positive elements of the biblical tradition as far as women are concerned (which of course immediately means that men are concerned too); to bring them together in one place; to quote them in full (unfortunately most hurried modern persons will not reach for a Bible and look up the chapter and verse references); and to provide a context and brief commentary that will lift up their significance and implications as far as woman, her relationship to herself, to man, and to God are concerned.

The book is thought of primarily as a sort of “companion,” a vade mecum, which can be read in snippets as time and inclination allow, as one way for modern people to get into the riches of the biblical tradition and profit by its deeply human, and at times even surprisingly “feminist,” insights and values. However, this book is so designed that it can likewise be read in longer sittings so that an overview of developments can also be gained. Alternatively the book can also serve as a reference tool for those wanting to look up a “feminist” perception of certain passages or books.

Though the main purpose of this book is to present and exegete those passages of the Bible and kindred material which are judged by the author to be of positive orientation as far as women are concerned, it was felt that to do only that would project a dangerous distortion. To those readers not familiar with the negative critical work done on the Bible mentioned above, an unreal impression, an unwarrantedly positive image of the attitudes toward and status of women in the Bible would be given. To avoid that disservice to many readers, a very brief survey of the negative aspects of the Jewish and Christian biblical traditions will also be provided, as well as a discussion of ambivalent portions of the biblical traditions.

Bible is meant here in a somewhat extended sense. It includes the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, and the Apostolic Writings, or New Testament. But just as the Apostolic Writings are in many ways a commentary on or interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, so also are the Rabbinic writings (Mishnah and Talmud). Hence, they will also be dealt with here. That will bring us to around the year 500 C.E. (Of the Common Era). But just as the Rabbinic writings are to the Hebrew Bible, so also the writings of the early Christian fathers (of roughly the same time period as the Mishnah and Talmud) are to the Apostolic Writings (New Testament). Hence, they also will be treated, but in a briefer fashion since they do not carry anything like the weight of authority in Christianity that the Mishnah and Talmud carry in Judaism. The Jewish religious writings composed in the period between Old and New Testaments, namely, the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, will also be covered, as well as the documents of fifth-century B.C.E. Elephantine Judaism. In parallel fashion the apocryphal New Testament and Gnostic Christian writings will likewise be investigated.

The translation of the Bible basically used throughout is usually that of the Jerusalem Bible. However, on numerous occasions its translators (and those of all other available translations as well) have, slightly or badly, missed meanings that are very important for an accurate understanding of some passages in relationship to women and men. The author himself, therefore, has not hesitated to translate many words or whole passages from the original Hebrew or Greek.

A word should be said here about the term “feminist,” which to some extent has become sloganized, positively and negatively. The term is used in this book purely in its descriptive sense. That is, a feminist is understood to be a person who is in favor of and promotes the equality of women with men, a person who advocates and practices treating women primarily as human persons-as men are so treated. Obviously men who claim to favor justice should be feminists as well as the women. This book, then, is written to help all feminists, potential and actual, female and male. To the extent that it does so, it will serve all humanity.



The land of Palestine lies in the center of the fertile crescent of the ancient Near East. The fertile crescent extended from the lower end of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the east (Sumer, in present day Iraq), up through present-day Syria and Lebanon, and down through Palestine, with Egypt and the Nile valley at its western tip. Civilization developed about the same time at the two extremities, Sumer in the east and Egypt in the west, and the status of women in both civilizations was relatively high in their early periods. Before 2400 B.C.E. in Sumer, polyandry (more than one husband to a wife) was at times practiced; some women also owned and controlled vast amounts of property, enjoyed some laws that in effect prescribed something like equal pay for equal work, and were able to bold top rank among the literati of the land, and to be spiritual leaders of paramount importance. In Egypt, during the third and fourth, and into the fifth dynasties (2778-2423 B.C.E.), when the highest level of culture of the Old Kingdom was reached, daughters had the same inheritance rights as sons, marriages were strictly monogamous (with the exception of royalty) and tended to be love matches; in fact, it can be said that in the Old Kingdom the wife was the equal of the husband in rights, although her place in society was not identical with that of her husband.

However, in the east, in the land of Mesopotamia, “Between the Rivers,” the Sumerian civilizations gave way gradually during the last quarter of the third millennium B.C.E., bowing to successive conquerors-Akkadia, Babylon, and Assyria. Here the lot of women declined drastically. For example, the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (1728-1636 B.C.E.) and similar codes permitted men to repudiate their wives for any or no reason, though the woman was able to divorce the husband only for very serious cause; indeed, even if in such a case a wife were a “gadabout,” her life was forfeit: “If she was not careful, but was a gadabout, thus neglecting her house [and] humiliating her husband, they shall throw that woman into the water” (Codex Hammurabi, 143). For complete documentation on the above paragraphs, see Leonard Swidler, Women in Judaism: The Status of Women in Formative Judaism, pp. 4f.; Scarecrow Press, 1976). This general trend is confirmed by  the analyses of the excavations of the ancient Mesopotamian city of Mari, where for a short period in the first half of the eighteenth century B.C.E. some women enjoyed a relatively high status.

There can be no doubt that men were culturally dominant.... A cultural bias against women is revealed by incidental disparaging remarks sprinkled throughout these texts about the weak, unheroic character of women.

In the matter of male dominance, Mari was in accord with the general Mesopotamian culture. The surprising fact, then, is not that women were regarded as inferior but that they were able to attain the great prominence that they did.

This political prominence of women in Mari and upper Mesopotamia stands in contrast both to their role in succeeding periods in Mesopotamian history and to the role of their contemporaries in lower Mesopotamia...Lamentably, the cultural standing of women deteriorated in succeeding periods of Mesopotamian history. (Bernard Frank Batto, Studies on Women at Mari, pp. 136-138; Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974)

The status of women also declined at the western tip of the fertile crescent, in Egypt, with the disintegration of the Old Kingdom in 2270 B.C.E. Eventually, however, it rose again, so that in Egypt, over the almost three-thousand-year history before the coming of Alexander the Great in 330 B.C.E., the status of women was quite high for about fifteen hundred years, corresponding with strong central governments. The periods of high status were, broadly speaking, 3000-2270 B.C.E., 1580-1085 B.C.E., and from 663 B.C.E. into the Greco-Roman period until the dominance of Christianity around 375 C.E. Thus, Jacques Pirenne could write: “We have arrived at the epoch of total legal emancipation of the woman. That absolute legal equality between the woman and the man continued to the arrival of the Ptolemies [Hellenistic successors to Alexander the Great] in Egypt” (Jacques Pirenne, “Le Statut de la femme dans l’ancienne Egypte,” La Femme. Recueil de la Société Jean Bodin, XI, 1, p. 76; Brussels, 1959). Though taking a somewhat more pessimistic view, Jean Vercoutter is in large agreement when after his extensive history of women in ancient Egypt he concludes:

If all the sources are in agreement that, everything considered, the woman in Egypt was subordinate to the man, that her duty was to please him, give him children and care for his house, it also appears that in turn custom allowed women a large freedom: they could go out freely and if perchance they owned some goods they would become the equal of the man in order to assure its management. In this sense the condition of the female Egyptian .was superior to that of the Greek, for example, and when with the Macedonian conquest Hellenistic customs and then Roman penetrated the Nile valley the female Egyptian lost many of the privileges which she had acquired little by little. It would indeed take centuries for that relative liberty which Egyptian women enjoyed to again be their lot. (Jean Vercoutter “La Femme en Egypt ancienne,” in Pierre Grimal, ed., Histoire mondiale de la femme, Vol. 1, p. 152; Paris: Nouvelle Librairie de France, 1965)

When we shift our focus to the world of Hellas, we also find women enjoying a relatively high status in the early period of Greek civilization, as in the Minoan culture of Crete (3 000-1100 B.C.E.) and the Greece of the time of the Homeric poems (before 900 B.C.E.). But there too women’s status declined, reaching a low point during the Golden Age of Greece, in the fourth and fifth centuries B.C.E.-though a distinction would have to be made between Athens, where women had a very inferior status, and Sparta, where they had great freedom.

But after the spread of Greek culture by Alexander the Great around 330 B.C.E. from Egypt to the Indus River, the lot of women gradually improved. We can trace a growing movement for women’s liberation with the passage of time in this Hellenistic world, so that in general women were more nearly equal to men in rights by the time of the New Testament than they had been in 300 B.C.E. Likewise, in general, greater freedom for women could be found the farther west one traveled. Naturally these are overall descriptions which admit of variations in details, but they are basically valid.

Let us look at least at some of the most important indicators of this women’s liberation movement in Hellenistic culture. In fifth-century Greece marriage was monogamous, but the husband was allowed sex with hetaerae (courtesans) and concubines. By 311 B.C.E. we find a marriage contract from the Greek island of Cos:

Contract of Heracleides and Demetria.... He is free, She is free.... It is not permitted to Heracleides to take another woman, for that would be an injury to Demetria, nor may be have children by another woman, nor do anything injurious to Demetria under any pretext. If Heracleides be found performing any such deed, Demetria shall denounce him.... Heracleides will return to Demetria the dowry of 1000 drachmas, which she contributed, and be will pay an additional 1000 drachmas in Alexandrian silver as an additional fine. (O. Rubensohn, Elephantine-Papyri, No. 1; Berlin, 1907)

Women in Hellenistic times also exercised extensive rights in the economic sphere. A woman could inherit a personal patrimony equally with her sons-buy, own, and sell property and goods, and will them to others. Indeed, in Hellenistic times there were wealthy Creek women, some of whom were greatly honored for their philanthropy. Klaus Thraede summed the matter up when be wrote: “The emancipation of the woman in private law was decisive for the development which began already in the classical period: the equalization in inheritance and property rights as well as the de facto independence in marriage and divorce” (“Frau,” Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, col. 199; 1973).

Unlike the Greek (Athenian) wives of the classical period, who did not even eat with male guests when they were in their own homes, let alone go out in mixed gatherings, the wives of the Hellenistic period were quite likely to turn up at social gatherings (symposia), and women went on long journeys. Whereas earlier it was customary for only Spartan women to participate in sports, including the Olympics, women’s involvement in this area advanced in later Hellenistic times to the point where there were women professional athletes, as, for example, the three daughters-Tryphosa, Hedea, and Dionysia-of Hermesianax of Tralles, who engaged in foot and chariot races in the years 47 to 41 B.C.E. Many women pursued music as a profession. Asia Minor was known for its women physicians, though according to Pliny the Elder much of the information about these women physicians was deliberately suppressed. On the level of skilled artisans, a woman often pursued a craft similar to her husband’s, e.g., a woman goldsmith and a man armorer-or think of Priscilla, who with her husband Aquila was a tentmaker (Acts 18:3).

In an advanced civilization the key to advanced status is education; by itself it will not accomplish everything, but without it usually little will be possible. Whereas in classical Athens among women usually only the hetaerae had any kind of education, education for young girls became ever broader and more widespread throughout the Hellenistic period, and one result was that more and more wives as well as husbands were educated. In fact, in Hellenistic Egypt there were more women who could sign their names than men, and thus Hellenistic literature, particularly the novel, was written for a feminine public. Another result of the broader Hellenistic education of women was the appearance of a flood of Hellenistic women poets.

It is perhaps most of all in that discipline of the spirit for which the Greeks are most renowned, philosophy, that one can see the striving for women’s liberation. In the seventh century many women were students of Pythagoras. But by the fourth century Plato and Aristotle paid only lip service to equality for women. However, in the Hellenistic period women again took up the study of philosophy. For example, we know that one of Aristotle’s followers, Theophrastus (d. 287 B.C.E.), had both a woman disciple, Pamphile (some of whose writing is extant), and a woman opponent, unfortunately anonymous. Thereafter to some extent the Cynics also spoke out in favor of equal rights for women, and women played a prominent role in the school of Epicurus (343-270 B.C.E.), not only as disciples but even as favorite teachers.

But the philosophical school which did most to promote the improved status of women was that of the Stoics. These grassroots philosophers stressed the worth of the individual woman, the need for her education (consequently there were many women followers of Stoicism), strict monogamy, and a notion of marriage as a spiritual community of two equals. The Roman knight C. Musonius Rufus, a contemporary of Philo the Jew and the apostle Paul, discussed at length whether women should also pursue philosophy and whether daughters should be brought up the same as sons; he answered yes to both questions.

In religion and cult, women in classical Greece, i.e., during the fifth century B.C.E., experienced restrictions that were broad, but by no means absolute. There were a number of religious activities or places that they could not enter upon, as, for example, the very important oracle of Delphi or the cult of Hercules; and usually only maidens, not married women, could watch the sacred games at Olympia. Women were also almost entirely absent from, or were kept in the background of, the activities of state religion. Still, in some cults, such as those of Artemis and Dionysus, women did play a significant role.

In the Hellenistic period, however, the extraordinary popularity of the eastern cults and mystery religions and the burgeoning women’s liberation movement dramatically changed the situation. Women not only took part in these religious cults, they often did so in great numbers and often in leading and even priestly roles, as, for example, in the Eleusinian, the Dionysian, and the Andanian mysteries. The cult of the goddess Isis, which came from Egypt but spread all over the Hellenistic and Roman world, was at the beginning of its popularity exclusively a women’s cult, and even after men were admitted it still provided women with leading religious roles and justly had the reputation of being a vigorous promoter of women’s equality and liberation.

The Hellenistic world was largely conquered by the Romans a century or so before the birth of Jesus. Although it was the Hellenistic cultural world that exercised the greatest outside influence on Judaism and Christianity, the influence of Rome was also present in its own way, i.e., mostly political, legal, and military, from the time of Pompey’s conquest of Palestine in 63 B.C.E. Hence, it is proper to note briefly the condition of women among the Romans.

Behind the culture of Rome there stood the extraordinarily developed culture of the Etruscans, stretching in space from Rome up to Pisa, and in time from before the seventh into the third century B.C.E. We find in Italy, as in Minoan Crete, a civilization characterized by a preeminence of women. Everywhere women were at the forefront of the scene, playing a considerable role and never blushing from shame, as Livy says of one of them, when exposing themselves to masculine company. In Etruria it was a recognized privilege for ladies of the most respectable kind, and not just for hetaerae as in Greece of the contemporary classical period, to take part with men in banquets, where they reclined as the men did. They attended dances, concerts, and sports events and even presided, as a painting in Orvieto shows, perched on a platform, over boxing matches, chariot races, and acrobatic displays.

Women, of course, did not enjoy such a high status in contemporary Greece, nor did they in early Rome. But by the third century B.C.E., Rome moved to improve the property rights of women. Some what later in the republic, doubtless because of the influence of the Etruscan culture and the growing pressure of the women’s liberation movement in Hellenism, the condition of women improved to the point where a woman could in general marry and divorce on her own initiative and even choose her own name. During the same period the image of leading women appeared on coins-for the first time. The Roman Cornelius Nepos (d. 32 B.C.E.) even felt that the advanced status of Roman women was something to boast about: “What Roman would find it annoying to be accompanied by his wife to a banquet? Or what housewife does not take the first place in her house or go about in public?”

The status of women continued to improve dramatically under the empire. Indeed, the political activity of women of the senatorial class developed so vigorously that we find on the walls of Pompeii the names of women running for office, a definite advance over Egyptian and Greek women, who had few political rights; women were sent on imperial missions to proconsuls; the possibility of a woman consul was even discussed. Nevertheless, it is basically true to say that “only the men exercised the political rights of citizens: military service, voting at the assemblies of the people, access to magistratures” (Jacques-Henri Michel, “L‘Infériorité de la condition féminine en droit romain,” Ludus Magistralis, No. 46, 1974, p. 7).

Women were everywhere involved in business and in social life-i.e., theaters, sports events, concerts, parties, traveling-with or without their husbands. They took part in a whole range of athletics and even bore arms and went into battle.

In family affairs one would have to speak of a certain equality of the sexes in daily life. The woman’s consent was necessary for marriage; in an increasing number of marriages (non in manu) she had no obligation to obey, nor did the husband have any legal power over his wife. Speaking of this kind of marriage, one scholar noted that “the married woman without manus was without doubt the most emancipated wife in the history of law!” (Michel, “L‘Infériorité de la condition féminine en droit romain,” p. 6). From the point of view of money the pattern increasingly was one of equality and of separation. The equality of the spouses was in effect total, whether concerning the full liberty of divorce in classical law, the limiting causes of that liberty in the late empire, or the sanctions of an unjustified divorce.

Republican Rome, acting originally under the influence of Etruscan culture, took up the impulse of women’s liberation from Hellenism and carried it forward to where the empire (30 B.C.E. onward) also made it its own and continued to promote it ever further throughout the first several centuries of the Common Era. This evolving liberation of women in Roman society was expressed in the legal forum by that extremely influential Roman jurist in the second century of the Common Era, Gaius:

It would appear that there is scarcely any very persuasive reason for women of adult age to be in tutelage. For the common notion that because of the levity of their minds they are often deceived and that therefore it is fitting that they be placed under the authority of tutors would appear to be more specious than true. In fact women of adult age conduct their own business fox themselves, and in certain cases, for the sake of form only the tutor gives his authorization. Indeed, even if he refuses it he is often forced to grant it by the praetor. (Gaius, Institutes 1.190)

[Quoted in Latin and French by Michel, in “L‘Infériorité de la condition féminine en droit romain,” p. 13, who remarked, “Perhaps this text, which deserves to be better known...should figure one day in some feminist pantheon.” For an excellent overview of the history of women in Greco-Roman society, see Sarah B. Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity; Schocken Books, 1975.]

In sum: The status of women in the ancient world of the fertile crescent after the early Sumerian period was almost uniformly low except in Egypt, where it was early and often quite high. In the classical Greco-Roman world (after the Minoan and pre-Homerian Greek periods) the condition of women was varied, but often quite restricted, with the clear exception of Etruscan culture. It nevertheless improved, particularly during the Hellenistic period, so vigorously and continually that one must speak of a women’s liberation movement which had a massive and manifold liberating impact on the lot of women-not everywhere and in every class and at every period equally effective, of course. This improving impulse was picked up and carried forward by Rome. In fact, the general rule in this matter is that the farther west one goes, the greater is the freedom of women-though in detail there are the greatest possible variations-and that also in general there is a progression in the freedom for women according to time. Thus, as the women of Rome tended to be freer than those of Greece, who were more liberated than women of the oriental world, so also the women of the time of the Roman empire had greater freedom than those of the time of the Roman republic, and their sisters in the Hellenistic world and period were less restricted than those of Greece at the time of the Athenian empire. Due account must be taken, of course, of the unsympathetic vagaries of all human history, and the fact that in so many ways the liberation of women was long since anticipated in ancient Sumer, Egypt, Minoan Crete, and later also in Etruria.

It is in this context and under this surrounding and pervading influence that the biblical traditions, Jewish and Christian, developed.






Although the Hebraic tradition early perceived God to be transcendent, beyond limitations, including sex, it nevertheless persisted in referring to God in terms and images that included sexuality. It is inevitable that this would happen, for so many things which humans value highest are found in other human beings (who normally are female or male)-such as being a knowing, loving person-that to speak of God as “It” would denigrate God. Thus the tradition often speaks of God in masculine-and feminine-images, although it also continues to affirm God’s transcendence of sexuality and all else, following the apophatic way, the via negativa, what the Hindus call the path of neti neti (not this, not that). The masculine images of God in the Hebrew Bible are well known (e.g., God as father, jealous husband, warrior). They are far more pervasive throughout the Bible than feminine imagery of God, reflecting that patriarchal, male-oriented society. But the feminine divine imagery is there too, albeit in a much lesser degree. A selection of it will be given below. In order to appreciate better the trajectory which some of the female imagery of God followed, examples of how this imagery developed into the early Christian as well as the early Jewish era will be presented below in their chronological places.

But first it would be helpful to spell out in a little detail something of the Goddess-worshiping culture that lay behind, around, and within the biblical religion.

§1. Goddess Worship

The earliest evidence we have of human religious activity in the Old World points to the worship of the Goddess-the divine would seem to have first been worshiped as female. The archaeological excavations at the upper paleolithic levels (25,000-8,000 B.C.E.) have produced innumerable female statuettes that appear to be either figurines of the Goddess or perhaps at least attempts at sympathetic magic, endeavoring to induce the fertility that all life depended on (see Edwin O. James, Prehistoric Religion, pp. 147, 153; Barnes & Noble, 1961; J. Edgar Bruns, God as Woman, Woman as God, pp. 8-10; Paulist/Newman Press, 1973). There would appear to have been no male God at this early period (see Edwin O. James, The cult of the Mother Goddess, pp. 21 f.; Frederick A. Praeger, 1959). As the paleolithic period gave way to the mesolithic (8,000-4,000 B.C.E.) and the neolithic (4,000-2,500 B.C.E.), the worship of the Goddess became even more vigorous and explicit. All of the Old World areas that cradled major civilizations (i.e., complex societies in which towns and cities, and the differentiation of culture that accompanies them, developed) show strong evidence of having initially been Goddess worshiping. That includes the Indus Valley, the Near East, Old Europe (i.e., the Balkans, Asia Minor, and the Eastern Mediterranean islands), and Egypt.

The gradual shift away from total dominance of the Goddess (except perhaps with Egypt, whose history is even more complex than the others) to the participation of a clearly subordinate male God seems to have been connected with the development of animal husbandry, whence the role of paternity became apparent. There never was any question about the female’s essential role in bringing new life into the world; but the role of the male and sex was not always so obvious. Still, even at this stage the male God played a vastly subordinate role vis-a-vis the Goddess.

The role of the God, however, in a number of instances advanced to that of an equal and even that of a superior of the Goddess, apparently under the impact of waves of attacks of patriarchal, male God worshiping, animal-herding Indo-Europeans who came down out of the northern mountains, perhaps originally from around the Caspian Sea (see James, Cult of the Mother Goddess, pp. 47, 99, 138). They appear, e.g., as Hittite conquerors of Anatolia, sometime before 2,000 B.C.E., ranging eventually down into Palestine. In the second millennium B.C.E. the patriarchal father-God worshipers swept into almost all the Goddess-worshiping civilizations, from the Indus Valley on the east through Mesopotamia and Asia Minor to Old Europe on the west (see H. R. Hays, In the Beginnings, pp. Calif.; G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1963). Perhaps only Egypt was unconquered by the patriarchal Indo-Europeans, though even it was dominated at times by Asian nations that were probably “carriers” of Indo-European patriarchal ideas, e.g., the Hyksos in the seventeenth and sixteenth centuries B.C.E. Marija Gimbutas describes in detail the world of the early Goddess worshipers in Old Europe and notes that “it is then replaced by the patriarchal world with its different symbolism and its different values. This masculine world is that of the Indo-Europeans, which did not develop in Old Europe but was superimposed upon it. Two entirely different sets of mythical images met.... The earliest European civilization was savagely destroyed by the patriarchal element and it never recovered, but its legacy lingered in the substratum” (Marija Gimbutas, The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe, p. 238; University of California Press, 1974).

§2. Male-God Invaders

A little should be noted about the characteristics of the God of those Indo-European tribes who over a period of centuries, perhaps starting in earnest in the latter half of the third millennium B.C.E., invaded in waves all of the existing civilizations. He was a father God, a warrior God, a supreme God, a God who dwelt in light and fire, on a mountaintop (the Indo-Europeans came from a mountainous area and perhaps originally worshiped volcanoes). He took the Goddess of the conquered nation as his heavenly consort and soon (usually) totally dominated her, as the Indo-Europeans dominated the conquered peoples. The Indo-European dead were said to dwell in “realms of eternal light,” in “glowing light, light primeval.” Their God was described as “be whose form is light.” The Sanskrit word for God, dev, literally means “shining” or “bright.” And in Iran, God-Ahura Mazda-was a great father who was referred to as the Lord of Light, dwelling on the top of a mountain, glowing in golden light; this mountain is supposedly Mount Hara, the first mountain ever created. In Greece there was the Indo-European Zeus with his fiery lightning and thunderbolts on top of Mount Olympus; the Indo-European Hittites and Indo-European-ruled Hurrians bad storm Gods with lightning bolts in their hands standing on a mountain; Indra of India, glowing in gold, holding a lightning bolt, was called Lord of the Mountains. Almost none of this was characteristic of the Goddess (see, e.g., Merlin Stone, When God Was a Woman pp. 72, 114; Dial Press, 1976).

§3. Yahweh, a God of Mountain and Light

Much of the imagery connected with the Hebrew Cod Yahweh is startlingly similar to the Father of Lightning, dwelling on a mountaintop, of the Indo-European patriarchal people. Consider the following:

[And Moses said to the people of Israel:] “Do not forget the things your eyes have seen; ... rather, tell them to your children .... The day you stood at Mount Horeb in the presence of Yahweh your God .... you came and stood at the foot of the mountain, and the mountains flamed to the very sky, a sky darkened by cloud, murky and thunderous. Then Yahweh spoke to you from the midst of the fire; you heard the sounds of words but saw no shape, there was only a voice.... Since you saw no shape on that day at Mount Horeb when Yahweh spoke to you from the midst of the fire, see that you do not act perversely, making yourselves a carved image in the shape of anything at all, whether it be in the likeness of man or of woman* ... for Yahweh your God is a consuming fire.... Did ever a people hear the voice of the living Cod speaking from the heart of the fire, as you heard it, and remain alive? ... He let you see his great fire, and from the heart of the fire you heard his word.... These are the words Yahweh spoke to you when you were all assembled on the mountain. With a great voice he spoke to you from the heart of the fire, in cloud and thick darkness ... while the mountain was all on fire.” (Deut 4:9-12, 15-16, 24, 33, 36; 5:22-23)

*[In fact the Israelites did later make an image, a golden calf, a widespread image in Egypt of the Goddess.]

There are of course many, many other references to Yahweh as a pillar of fire (Ex 13:21), Father of lights (Jas 1:17), as “wrapped in a robe of light” (Ps 104:2), as one asked to “touch the mountains, make them smoke, flash your lightning” (Ps 144:5), and as a rock (Ps 18; 19; 28; 3 1; 42; 62; 7 1; 89; 92; 94); and it is on Mount Zion that he is to be worshiped, though the northern tribes of Israel argued for Mount Gerizim. Yahweh is very often imaged as a father, a warrior God who slays his enemies in battle, the supreme creator of all; and in Elephantine Judaism the goddess Anath was the consort of Yahweh (see § 5).

Exactly what connection there might be between the patriarchal Hebrews and their God Yahweh and the patriarchal Indo-Europeans and their Gods remains unclear. But whatever the direct connections may or may not be, it is clear that the stance of both patriarchal peoples and their theologies vis-a-vis the religion of the Goddess would be, and was, very similar-hostile.

§4. Hebrews Worship the Goddess

The Yahwists struggled for hundreds of years to suppress the worship of the Goddess among the Hebrews. In tracing the history of this struggle, it should be noted first that in the Land of Canaan the Goddess worship was quite diversified by biblical times, so that there were at least three names of the Goddess: Anath, Astarte, and Asherah, who were subordinate to the male god Baal. (These three were probably originally one; Asherah is the Canaanite name for the earlier Sumerian goddess Ashratum, the consort of the god Anu, who closely corresponded to the Canaanite god El-a name for God also used by the Hebrews in many forms, e.g., El, Elohim (see §22), as they were both the God of Heaven; see William F. Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel, p. 78; Johns Hopkins Press, 1942. Astarte is related to the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, and she in turn to the Sumerian Inanna.)

There have been thousands of female figurines, many of which represent the Goddess, dug up all over Palestine at pre-, early, and middle biblical levels, though little in the way of male-God figurines (see Raphael Peter, The Hebrew Goddess, pp. 58-6 1; KTAV Publishing House, 1967).

Kathleen M. Kenyon (Archaeology in the Holy Land, p. 214; Frederick A. Praeger, 1960) in writing of the Late Bronze Age states that “the Astarte plaques ... are the most common cult object on almost all sites of the period .... Tell Beit Mirsim [in Palestine] itself provides clear evidence for the occurrence of such plaques or similar figurines right down to the 7th century B.C. The denunciations by the prophets are enough to show that Yahwehism had continuously to struggle with the ancient religion of the land.” Although biblical texts give us only a glimpse of the pervasiveness of the Goddess worship among all the Hebrews, mostly by way of condemnations of it by Yahwist prophets and destruction of Goddess images, etc., by reforming Yahwist kings, it is worth outlining this history briefly to gain some sense of the implacable fury vented by the Yahwists on the Goddess worshipers.

In the time of the judges (before 1000 B.C.E.) the people of Israel stopped worshiping Yahweh and served the Baals and Astartes (Judg 2:13). Later Solomon (961-922) “worshiped Astarte, the goddess of Sidon” (I Kings 11:5). Then the prophet Ahijah said: “Yahweh the God of Israel says to you, ‘I am going to take the kingdom away from Solomon.... I am going to do this because they have rejected me and have worshiped Astarte, the goddess of Sidon’” (I Kings 11: 31-33). In the next generation Ahijah said to the wife of Jeroboam, king of Israel (922-901), that “Yahweh will punish Israel ... because they have aroused his anger by making idols of the goddess Asherah” (I Kings 14:15). Meanwhile in Judah the people “put up stone pillars and symbols of Asherah to worship on the hills and under shady trees. Worst of all there were cult prostitutes (sing. qadesh) in the land. And they imitated all the abominations of the people Yahweh had thrown out before the Israelites came” (I Kings 14:23f.). Then in Judah the next king, Asa (913-873), “expelled from the country all Temple prostitutes (qedeshim) from the land and removed all the idols his fathers had made. He removed his grandmother Maacah from her position as queen mother, because she had made an obscene idol of the goddess Asherah. Asa cut down the idol and burned it in the Kidron valley” (I Kings 15:12f.). In the next generation King Ahab (869-850) of Israel “put up an image of the goddess Asherah” (I Kings 16:33). “At that time there were at least four hundred prophets of Asherah” (I Kings 18:19) in Israel. Under King Jehoahaz (815-801) the people of Israel “still did not give up the sins into which King Jeroboam had led Israel, but kept on committing them; and the image of the goddess Asherah remained in Samaria” (2 Kings 13:6). The Goddess cult in the Northern Kingdom apparently continued, for in 721 when Israel fell to the Assyrians it was recorded that it fell “because the Israelites sinned against Yahweh their God. ... They worshiped other gods.... On all the hills they put up stone pillars and images of the goddess Asherah” (2 Kings 17:7-10).

The Bible redactors report somewhat more favorably on the attempts at reform led by some of the kings of Judah, but in the process indicate the pervasiveness and persistence of the Goddess worship among the Hebrews. After early reforms under King Joash (837-800) of Judah it was said that the “people stopped worshiping in the Temple of Yahweh, the God of their ancestors, and began to worship idols and the images of the goddess Asherah” (2 Chron 24:18). Goddess worship obviously continued until King Hezekiah (715-687) of Judah “broke the stone pillars and cut down the image of the goddess Asherah” (2 Kings 18:4). But his own son Manasseh followed as king and “made an image of the goddess Asherah” (2 Kings 21:3). Then came the last great reform efforts before the exile, under King Josiah (640-609) of Judah, who “removed from the Temple the symbol of the goddess Asherah, took it out of the city to the Kidron valley, burned it, pounded its ashes to dust.... He destroyed the living quarters in the Temple occupied by the Temple prostitutes. It was there that women wove robes for the Asherah” (2 Kings 23:6-7).

All three of the greater prophets mention the worship of the Goddess. The oldest, Isaiah, predicts around 735 B.C.E. that when Yahweh punishes Israel the people “will no longer rely on altars they made with their own hands, or trust in their own handiwork-symbols of the goddess Asherah” (Is 17:8). At another place he adds that “Israel’s sins will be forgiven only when the stones of pagan altars are ground up like chalk, and no more symbols of the goddess Asherah or incense altars are left” (Is 27:9). Ezekiel, who traditionally is said to have been active around the time of the fall of Jerusalem a generation after King Josiah in 586, reported being shown “at the inner entrance of the north gate of the Temple an idol that was an outrage to God” (Ezek 8:3). In line with most scholarship the New American Bible notes here that “this was probably the statue of the goddess Asherah erected by the wicked King Manasseh-cf. 2 Kgs 21:7; 2 Chr 33:7, 15. Though it had been removed by King Josiah-2 Kgs 23:6-it had no doubt been set up again.” In the same vision Ezekiel reported on a sight three times more abominable, namely, at the north gate of the Temple were “women weeping over the death of the god Tammuz” (Ezek 8:14; a part of a seasonal ritual in which the death of plants in fall was likened to the descent into the nether world by the subordinate male god Tammuz, to be triumphantly restored to life in spring by the source of life, the goddess Astarte-or Ishtar in Babylonian or Inanna in Sumerian traditions).

Some years before, Jeremiah complained that the people of Judah 41 worship at the altars and symbols that have been set up for the goddess Asherah by every green tree and on the bill tops and on the mountains in the open country” (Jer 17:2-3). Later the same prophet Jeremiah was taken with the remnant of Judeans, after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586, into Egypt. He berated the people for having brought on the disaster by worshiping other Gods. Who the “other God” was is made clear by the people’s response:

Then all the men who knew that their wives offered sacrifices to other gods and all the women in the crowd ... said to me “We refuse to listen to what you have told us in the name of Yahweh. We will do everything that we said we would. We will offer sacrifices to our goddess, the Queen of Heaven,* and we will pour out wine offerings to her, just as we and our ancestors, our king and our leaders, used to do in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. Then we had plenty of food, we were prosperous, and had no troubles. But ever since we stopped sacrificing to the Queen of Heaven and stopped pouring out wine offerings to her, we have had nothing, and our people have died in war and starvation.” And the women added, “When we baked cakes shaped like the Queen of Heaven, offered sacrifices to her, and poured our wine offerings to her, our husbands approved of what we were doing.” (Jer 44:15-19)

*[Anath-Astarte was addressed as Queen of Heaven in Egypt-Patai, Hebrew Goddess, p. 55 .]

The Oxford Annotated Bible also links this Queen of Heaven with the Babylonian Ishtar and the Canaanite Astarte (likewise with the Greek Aphrodite and Roman Venus), and states that “the cult was especially popular among women, who had an inferior role in the cult of the LORD [Yahweh]. . . . The cult persisted into the Christian centuries, and features of it were incorporated by the early Syrian church in the adoration of the Virgin.” It is clear from the Jeremiah text that the women too were “priests” in the ancient Hebrew cult of the Queen of Heaven.

§5. Hebrew Goddess at Elephantine

Probably from around this time onward a colony of Jews lived at Elephantine, Egypt, an island in the Nile river, opposite Aswan, about four hundred miles south of Cairo. From their papyrus letters and documents of the late fifth century B.C.E. we know not only that the Jewish women as well as men contributed money to the Temple, and that the women could divorce their spouses as well as the men could, but also that in the Temple along with Yahu (as Yahweh was addressed there) the goddess Anathbethel was also worshiped (Arthur E. Cowley, Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B.C., p. 72; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923).

The name Anath-Bethel literally means “Anath the House of El [the God of Heaven]”-cf. Cowley, Aramaic Papyri, p. 72. Since in Hebraic culture a wife is referred to as the husband’s “house,” this name suggests that the goddess Anath was understood as the “God of Heaven’s” consort. This is further confirmed by the fact that Yahu (derived from a variant of an older spelling of Yahweh) is called the “God of Heaven” in the same Elephantine papyri (ibid., p. 114) and that Anath is often referred to as the “Lady of Heaven,” especially in Egyptian culture (see Patai, Hebrew Goddess, p. 55). Still further, the Jewish writings of Elephantine also include an oath to Yahu and to Anath, “consort of Yahu”: “He swore to Mesbullam b. Nathan by Yahu the God, by the temple and by Anathyahu” (Cowley, Aramaic Papyri, p. 148). (Alternatively, Kraeling suggests that Bethel in Anath-Bethel is simply an alternative name for Yahu, and offers reasons-Emil G. Kraeling, ed., The Brooklyn Museum Aramaic Papyri, pp. 88-90; Yale University Press, 1953.)

Moreover, it is likely that refugees from Bethel, some fourteen miles north of Jerusalem, played an important part in the development of this syncretistic worship in Elephantine Judaism, for Bethel was known not only as a place where Yahweh was early worshiped; Bethel was a place where later the Goddess was also worshiped, as indicated by the calf image there (cf. e.g., Hos 10:5-the cow, the calf, was a symbol of the Goddess, the source of life, fertility; see James, Cult of the Mother Goddess, p. 8 1). After describing temples of the Goddess and of Yahweh alongside each other at Tell-en-Nasbeb in Palestine, Edwin O. James goes on to state:

This equipment suggests that it was a centre of the Goddess cult where Astarte was worshipped, probably in later times alongside of Yahweh at the neighbouring shrine, possibly as his consort. If this were so, the goddesses under Canaanite names (e.g., Anath-Yahu comparable to Yo-Elat in Ugaritic texts) assigned to Yahweh in the Jewish community at Elephantine after the Exile can hardly have been an innovation. (James, Cult of the Mother Goddess, p. 80)

§6. Goddess Worship “Suppressed”

After the return of the Jewish people to Jerusalem from the Babylonian exile the public worship of the Goddess seems to have been successfully suppressed, being relegated largely to feminine manifestations of God as in the post-exilic Wisdom books’ praise of the feminine Hokmah (Hebrew) or Sophia (Greek), “Wisdom,” and the growing reference to God’s feminine Presence, Shekhinah, an Aramaic term first found after the beginning of the Christian Era in Rabbinic and Targumic writings. One of the high-cost ways this was accomplished was by the banning of intermarriage. By this time Jewish women in any case normally could not marry non-Jews; Jewish men also were not supposed to marry non-Jewish women, though in fact they did. The reason foreign wives were not to be taken is that they were seen as the source of corrupting Goddess worship, e.g., Jezebel and her worship of Asherah and Baal. This enforcement of the Deuteronomic prohibition (Deut 7:1-4) took the drastic form of the divorce and driving out by the Jewish men of their non-Jewish wives and children (Ezra 9 and 10; cf. Neh 13:23-28). Despite all the efforts, however, to eliminate the feminine dimension of the deity, it persisted in biblical writers perhaps far more than is often realized. Some examples follow.

§7. God a Seamstress

Already in the most ancient part of the Bible, the Yahwist’s story of the Fall, one finds Yahweh performing a customarily female task in Hebrew society (cf. Prov 31:10-31): Yahweh God acts as a seamstress:

And Yahweh God made tunics of skins for the man and his wife and clothed them. (Gen 3:21)

§8. God Mother and Nurse

When the Israelites in the desert complained of their problems to Moses, he in turn complained to Yahweh with rhetorical questions that by negative implication project onto Yahweh the images of a mother and a wet nurse-and this also in the ancient Elohist-Yahwist portion of the Bible.

Was it I who conceived all this people, was it I who gave them birth, that you should say to me, “Carry them in your bosom, like a beloved little mother with a baby at the breast?” (Num 11:12)

§9. God a Loving Mother

While the eighth-century prophet Hosea makes heavy use of the image of Yahweh as the husband of a faithless Israel, he also projects Yahweh in the image of a parent teaching a child to walk, healing its hurts, feeding it-all tasks a mother, not a father, normally performed in that society. Yahweh further frets and agonizes over the wayward child, but in the end declares in favor of mercy instead of deserved punishment by clearly rejecting any identification with the male-ish, meaning male, is the term used.

When Israel was a child I loved him, and I called my son out of Egypt. ... I myself taught Ephraim to walk, I took them in my arms; yet they have not understood that I was the one looking after them. I led them with reins of kindness, with leading-strings of love. I was like someone who lifts an infant close against his cheek; stooping down to him I gave him his food. ... I will not give rein to my fierce anger, I will not destroy Ephraim again, for I am God, not man (ish). (Hos 11: 1, 3, 4, 9)

§10. God Who Gave Birth to Humanity

In the last book of the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy (possibly seventh century), in the Song of Moses, God describes herself in clearly feminine, motherly imagery (if the first verb is understood in the less likely paternal sense, then an androgynous parental image of God is projected):

You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you (yiladeka) and you forgot the God who writhed in labor pains with you (meholeleka). (Deut 32:18) [Note: yiladeka almost always means “that bore you,” and only rarely can mean “begot,” as it is almost always translated-see P. A. H. DeBoer, Fatherhood and Motherhood in Israelite and Judean Piety, p. 52; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1974.]

§ 11. Humanity in Yahweh’s Womb-I

In Hebrew, rechem means womb. The plural form, rachamim, extends this concrete meaning to signify compassion, love, mercy. The verb form, rchm, means to show mercy, and the adjective, rachum, means merciful. Thus to speak of compassion or mercy automatically calls forth maternal overtones. This motherly compassion is attributed to God in a number of places; it is especially striking in a passage from Jeremiah, a seventh-century prophet. After a careful, penetrating analysis, Phyllis Trible (God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, p. 45; Fortress Press, 1978) provides a translation of the passage that is much more accurate and sensitive to the Hebrew poetry in general and the words related to rechem in particular. In the last line Yahweh speaks of herself with the doubly uterine words rachem, arachamennu, “motherly womb-love.”

Is Ephraim my dear Son? my darling child?

For the more I speak of him

the more do I remember him.

Therefore, my womb trembles for him;

I will truly show motherly-compassion

(rachem arachamennu) upon him.

Oracle of Yahweh (Jer 31:20)

12. Humanity in Yahweh’s Womb-II

The above passage of Jeremiah is a key one in a larger poetic structure where the very form expresses a superiority of the female over the male in that the male came forth from the female’s womb, is “ surrounded by” the female, therefore. The passage Jer 31:15-22 reaches its climax with the statement: “For Yahweh has created a new thing in the land: female surrounds [tesobeb] man.” (v.22) This “female surrounding man” has manifold referents: Rachel the mother embracing her sons (v.15), Yahweh consoling Rachel about Ephraim (vs.16-17), Yahweh proclaiming motherly compassion for Ephraim (v. 20), the daughter Israel superseding the son Ephraim (v. 2 1).

[Words of a woman] A voice is heard in Ramah,

lamenting and weeping bitterly:

it is Rachel weeping for her children

because they are no more.

[Words to a woman] Yahweh says this:

Stop your weeping,

dry your eyes,

your hardships will be redressed:

they shall come back from the enemy country.

There is hope for your descendants:

your sons will come home to their own lands.

[Words of a man]

plainly hear the grieving of Ephraim,

“You have disciplined me, I accepted the discipline

like a young bull untamed.

Bring me back, let me come back,

for you are Yahweh my God!

Yes, I turned away, but have since repented;

I understood, I beat my breast.

I was deeply ashamed, covered with confusion;

Yes, I still bore the disgrace of my youth.”

[Words of a woman-Yahweh]

Is Ephraim my dear son? my darling child?

For the more I speak of him,

the more do I remember him.

Therefore, my womb trembles for him;

I will truly show motherly-compassion upon him

[Words to a woman-Jeremiah’s comma

Set up signposts,

raise landmarks;

mark the road well,

the way by which you went.

Come home, virgin of Israel,

come home to these towns of yours.

How long will you hesitate, disloyal daughter?

For Yahweh has created a new thing in the land:

female surrounds man. (Jer 31:15-22)

As Phyllis Trible notes (God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, p. 50): “The very form and content of the poem embodies a womb: woman encloses man. The female organ nourishes, sustains, and redeems the male child Ephraim. Thus our metaphor is surrounded by a cloud of witnesses.”

§13. God in Birth Pangs

This feminine divine imagery is, if possible, intensified in the middle of the sixth century by Second Isaiah through whom Yahweh God speaks of herself as crying out with labor pains-a ne plus ultra in feminine divine imagery.

Yahweh God goes forth.... “But now, I cry out as a woman in labor, gasping and panting.” (Is 42:13, 14)

§14. Israel in the Womb of God the Mother

Yahweh continues, in the mouth of Second Isaiah, to liken herself to a mother, describing her concern for exiled Israel as that of a mother for her own baby:

Listen to me, house of Jacob and all the remnant of the house of Israel who have been borne by me from the belly (beten), carried from the womb (racham), even until old age I am the one, and to gray hairs am I carrying you. Since I have made, I will bear, carry and save. (Is 46:3-4)

§15. God a Nursing Mother

Yahweh goes on, through Second Isaiah, to liken her loving memory of Zion to that of an affectionate mother with a child at the breast.

For Zion was saying, “Yahweh has abandoned me, the Lord has forgotten me.” Does a woman forget her baby at the breast, or fail to cherish the son of her womb? Yet even if these forget, I will never forget you. (Is 49:14-15)

§16. God a Comforting Mother

Third Isaiah expresses the words of Yahweh wherein she again likens herself to a mother consoling her son. As Phyllis Trible notes (God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, p. 67): “‘So I (‘anoki) will comfort you.’ The use of the first-person pronoun, ‘anoki, stresses the divine agent. Although the comparison stops just short of calling God mother, it does not stop short of this meaning. Yahweh is a consoling mother to the children of Jerusalem.”

For thus says Yahweh: . . . Like a son comforted by his mother, so will I comfort you. (Is 66:12-13)

§17. God a Mother and a Father

Elsewhere Third Isaiah projects Yahweh with both maternal and paternal imagery. This androgynous balance is lost in most translations, but Phyllis Trible’s analysis and translation makes the alternation between the God of the womb and God the Father clear (God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, p. 53):

Yahweh.... where is your ardor and your might,

the trembling of your womb and your compassion?

Restrain not yourself, for you are our Father. (Is 63:14-15)

§18. Yahweh the Midwife

In Ps 22:9, Yahweh is depicted in an intimate female role, that of a midwife:

Yet you drew me out of the womb,

you entrusted me to my mother’s breasts. (Ps 22:9)

§19. Mistress Yahweh

The psalmist projects an image that by association likens Yahweh to both a master and a mistress.

I lift my eyes to you,

to you who have your home in heaven,

eyes like the eyes of slaves

fixed on their master’s hand;

like the eyes of a slave-girl

fixed on the hand of her mistress,

so our eyes are fixed on Yahweh our God. (Ps 123:2)

§20. God Motherlike

In The Psalms there is also an image of a motherly Yahweh who comforts her weaned child, the psalmist, on her divine motherly lap:

O Yahweh.... I have calmed and quieted my soul like a weaned child, like a weaned child on its mother’s lap. (Ps 131:1, 2)

§21. God a Mother and a Father Even in Irony

In the early fifth-century Book of Job an ironic rhetorical question is put to Job. He is asked whether the dew and frost have a father and a mother. The answer is both, “no, for they come from God,” and “yes, they both come from God”: it is through human imagery that we come to a knowledge of the transcendence of God (see Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, pp. 67f.).

Has the rain a father?

Who begets the dewdrops?

What womb brings forth the ice,

and gives birth to the frost of heaven? (job 38:28-29)

§22. “Androgynous” God

Throughout much of the Hebrew Bible the word used for the notion “God” is ‘elohim. This is one of the three Hebrew variants, ‘el, ‘eloah, ‘elohim (‘elah in Aramaic portions of the Bible), which usually are used interchangeably (similar words are used in the rest of the ancient Semitic world for the deity, e.g., Akkadian ilu, Arabic ‘ilah). Of special interest is that Elohim is plural (which is reflected in the occasional plural verb forms used, e.g., Gen 1:26), probably coming from the singular feminine form of the word for God, Eloah (ah is a singular feminine suffix; im is a plural suffix that can be feminine or masculine). There is likely a residue of a very ancient Semitic female God, Eloah, a male God, El, and a court of female and male Gods, Elohim, reflected in this Hebrew biblical usage. This intermixing of masculine and feminine forms for God by the biblical writers indicates both a combining of sexual images in God, and a transcending of all sexuality. The combining of feminine and masculine forms seems to be the first phase, and the transcending of sexual forms the second phase.

The first, combining, phase in God is reflected by God’s image, humanity, and is underscored by the Priestly writer when he, writes: “and God (Elohim) said, ‘Let us make humanity (adam) in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves.’. . . And God (Elohim) created humanity (ha adam) in the image of himself, in the image of God (Elohim) he created it, male and female he created them” (Gen 1:26-27). Then, just as humanity is sometimes spoken of in a sexually undifferentiated, or androgynous, sense, sometimes in reference to the female portion, and sometimes in reference to the male portion, so too the God of the Bible is sometimes spoken of as female (Eloah), as male (El), and as “androgynous” (Elohim, in Gen 1:26-28).

All these reasons point at a God and a Goddess as subject of “We shall make people.” God, pictured as a king with a court, making heaven and earth through royal strength, makes man. The ancient believer recognised man’s fertility and power as a gift of his God who himself is male and female. Only if man is conscious of holiness in his being man and woman might he be able to understand that a conception of God: Father and Mother, guarantee of life and existence, is no blasphemy but expression of true faith....

Praying to God, “Our Father who art in heaven” and forgetting the Mother or all living, is inadequate. Praying to “Our Mother who art in earth” [recall the ancient references discussed above to Mother-earth, source of life] and forgetting the fatherly authority, is likewise inadequate. Due to what became visible of divine Fatherhood and Motherhood in ancient Israelite and Judean piety we ought, I think, to pray to God’s totality, respectfully desiring to belong to his family. (DeBoer, Fatherhood and Motherhood in Israelite and Judean Piety, pp. 46-53)


The ancient biblical literature about Wisdom was written in Hebrew (Proverbs; Job 28); some of it, however, we know largely through its early Greek translation (Ben Sira-also called Sirach or Ecclesiasticus; Baruch); some later Wisdom literature, however, was composed originally in Greek (the Book of Wisdom-also called the Wisdom of Solomon). Baruch, Ben Sira, and Wisdom are accepted by Catholicism and Orthodoxy as part of the Bible; Judaism and Protestantism place them outside the canonical Bible, in the so-called Apocrypha.

It is in these five books that the feminine divine Wisdom is presented. Wisdom is feminine not only grammatically (Hokmah in Hebrew and Sophia in Greek) but also in the way she is depicted in this literature, i.e., as a woman (for example, in Proverbs she is Lady Wisdom in contrast to Dame Folly-Prov 9:13). It should also be remembered that in Hebrew both the adjectives and verb forms reflect the feminine gender of the subject-this in addition to the ah feminine ending of the noun hokmah. All of this makes the Hebrew reader of the following passages constantly aware of the feminine quality of divine Wisdom, Hokmah. Lady Wisdom, Hokmah, is also doubtless the Hebrew expression of the ancient Goddess that has been biblically canonized, for the Goddess was widely worshiped as the source of all knowledge and wisdom, particularly in the symbol of the Serpent Goddess, as mentioned below in §76. The highly respected scholar Hans Conzelmann, after careful analysis, concluded similarly: “Personified Wisdom’s ... predecessor is the syncretistic goddess which is most widely known under the name of Isis.” (Hans Conzelmann, “The Mother of Wisdom,” in James M. Robinson, ed., The Future of Our Religious Past; p. 243; London: SCM Press, 1971.)

§23. Feminine Wisdom-Quasi-Divine

In the oldest book of the biblical Wisdom literature by far, Proverbs, this feminine Wisdom, Hokmah, at times has a quasi-divine quality; she is like an attribute of God.

1, Wisdom (Hokmah), am mistress of discretion,

the inventor of lucidity of thought.

Good advice and sound judgment belong to me,

 perception to me, strength to me.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Yahweh possessed me when his purpose first unfolded

before the oldest of his works.

From everlasting I was firmly set,

from the beginning, before earth came into being.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I was by his side, a beloved little mother*

delighting with him day after day. (Prov 8:12, 14, 22, 23, 30)

*This difficult word is so translated by P. A. H. DeBoer: “‘Beloved little mother’ is a rendering of the Hebrew ‘mwn, read as ‘immôn, a hypocoristicon for ‘em, mother, possibly a love-name for the beloved and inspiring consort. Wisdom, merry, making sport before the Lord, is a remarkable line of this wonderful poem of which is said, there is here ‘a fleeting suggestion of marital joys’” (DeBoer, Fatherhood and Motherhood in Israelite and Judean Piety, p. 5).

§24. A Feminine Personification of God

In Proverbs, Wisdom, Hokmah, is also personified, a feminine dimension of God that literally takes on a separate existence. It is clearly a feminine image of the divine, just as fatherhood is a masculine image. In the beginning of the book of Proverbs, Hokmah issues her warning to the ignorant.

Wisdom calls aloud in the streets,

she raises her voice in the public squares;

she calls out at the street corners,

she delivers her message at the city gates,

“You ignorant people, how much longer will you cling to your ignorance?

How much longer will mockers revel in their mocking

and fools hold knowledge contemptible?

Pay attention to my warning:

now I will pour out my heart to you,

and tell you what I have to say.

Since I have called and you have refused me,

since I have beckoned and no one has taken notice,

since you have ignored all my advice

and rejected all my warnings,

I, for my part, will laugh at your distress,

I will jeer at you when calamity comes,

when calamity bears down on you like a storm

and your distress like a whirlwind,

when disaster and anguish bear down on you.

Then they shall call to me, but I will not answer,

they shall seek me eagerly and shall not find me.

They despised  knowledge,

they had no love for the fear of Yahweh,

they would take no advice from me,

and spurned all my warnings:

so they must eat the fruits of their own courses,

and choke themselves with their own scheming.

For the errors of the ignorant lead to their death,

and the complacency of fools works their own ruin;

but whoever listens to me may live secure,

he will have quiet, fearing no mischance.” (Prov 1:20-33)

§25. Lady Wisdom Praised

The ancient sage sings of the joy, the transcending value, of following Lady Wisdom, Hokmah.

Happy the person (adam) who discovers Wisdom (Hokmah),

the person (adam) who gains discernment:

gaining her is more rewarding than silver,

more profitable than gold.

She is beyond the price of pearls,

nothing you could covet is her equal.

In her right hand is length of days;

in her left hand, riches and honour.

Her ways are delightful ways,

her paths all lead to contentment.

She is a tree of life for those who bold her fast,

those who cling to her live happy lives. (Prov 3:13-18)

§26. God’s Feminine Lovableness Sought After

Lady Wisdom, the divine Hokmah, is like one’s beloved, to be sought after and held fast-God in her lovableness to humanity.

Acquire Wisdom, acquire Perception,

 never forget her, never deviate from my words.

Do not desert her, she will keep you safe,

love her, she will watch over you.

The beginning of Wisdom? The acquisition of Wisdom;

at the cost of all you have, acquire Perception.

Hold her close, and she will make you great;

embrace her, and she will be your pride;

she will set a crown of grace on your head,

present you with a glorious diadem.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I have educated you in the ways of Wisdom,

I have guided you along the paths of Honesty.

As you walk, your going will be unhindered,

as you run, you will not stumble.

Hold fast to Discipline, never let her go,

keep your eyes on her, she is your life. (Prov 4:5-9, 11-13)

§27. Feminine Wisdom Loved

The sage again addresses the divine Hokmah with a term of endearment, sister, as men did to their beloved in that culture (cf. Song of Songs 4:12; 5:1-2).

To Hokmah say, “My sister!” (Prov 7:4)

§28. Humanity Is Masculine: Divinity Is Feminine

The paean of feminine divine Wisdom reaches its height in Proverbs, chapters 8 and 9. Hokmah is still personified, the feminine side of the divine that can be perceived and is to be sought for by humans The masculine (human)-feminine (divine) relationship is accentuated here in the Hebrew by the use of the term “O men” (males, ishim).

Does Wisdom not call meanwhile?

Does Discernment not lift up her voice?

On the hilltop, on the road,

at the crossways, she takes her stand;

beside the gates of the city,

at the approaches to the gates she cries aloud,

“O men! (ishim) I am calling to you;

my cry goes out to the sons (bnei) of humanity (adam).

You ignorant ones! Study discretion;

and you fools, come to your senses!

Listen, I have serious things to tell you,

from my lips come honest words.

My mouth proclaims the truth,

wickedness is hateful to my lips.

All the words I say are right,

nothing twisted in them, nothing false,

all straightforward to him who understands,

honest to those who know what knowledge means.

Accept my discipline rather than silver,

knowledge  in preference to pure gold.

For Wisdom is more precious than pearls,

and nothing else is so worthy of desire. (Prov 8:1-11)

§29. In Praise of Feminine Divine Wisdom

The feminine divine Wisdom sings her own praises:

“I, Wisdom, am mistress of discretion,

the inventor of lucidity of thought.

Good advice and sound judgment belong to me,

perception to me, strength to me.

(To fear Yahweh is to hate evil.)

I hate pride and arrogance,

wicked behaviour and a lying mouth.

I love those who love me;

those who seek me eagerly shall find me.

By me monarchs rule

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  

and the great impose justice on the world.

With me are riches and honour,

lasting wealth and justice.

The fruit I give is better than gold, even the finest,

The return I make is better than pure silver.

I walk in the way of virtue,

in the paths of justice,

enriching those who love me,

filling their treasuries.” (Prov 8:12-21)

§30. Eternal Feminine Wisdom

According to the sage of Proverbs the feminine Hokmah is, like Yahweh, eternal, being present even before creation. As noted above, Hokmah here is quasi-divine, the eternally present feminine aspect of the divine vis-á-vis the non-divine. (The Hebrew verb qanani was translated as “acquired” or “possessed” in three Greek translations (Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion) and Jerome’s Latin; as “created” by the Targum’s Aramaic and the Septuagint’s Greek.)

“Yahweh possessed (qanani) me when his purpose first unfolded,

before the oldest of his works.

From everlasting I was firmly set,

from the beginning, before earth came into being.

The deep was not, when I was born,

there were no springs to gush with water.

Before the mountains were settled,

before the bills, I came to birth;

before he made the earth, the countryside,

or the first grains of the world’s dust.

When he fixed the heavens firm, I was there,

when he drew a ring on the surface of the deep,

when he thickened the clouds above,

when he fixed fast the springs of the deep,

when he assigned the sea its boundaries

-and the waters will not invade the shore-

when he laid down the foundations of the earth,

I was by his side, a beloved little mother,

delighting him day after day,

ever a play in his presence,

at play everywhere in his world,

delighting to be with the sons of humanity.” (Prov 8:22-31)

§31. Lady Wisdom Extends an Invitation

Wisdom now issues an invitation (despite the feminine quality of Wisdom, or perhaps because of it, this advice is addressed mainly to men, here, sons-banim) to hearken to her.

“And now, my sons (banim), listen to me;

listen to instruction and learn to be wise,

do not ignore it.

Happy those who keep my ways!

Happy is the one who listens to me,

who  day after day watches at my gates

to guard the portals.

For the one who finds me finds life,

will win favor from Yahweh;

but they who do injury to me do hurt to their own souls,

all who hate me are in love with death.” (Prov 8:32-36)

§32. A Divine Hostess

Hokmah prepares a divine banquet for all, acting as hostess, sending out her maidservants.

Wisdom has built herself a house,

she has erected her seven pillars,

she has slaughtered her beasts, prepared her wine,

she has laid her table.

She has despatched her maidservants

and proclaimed from the city’s heights:

“Who is ignorant? Let him step this way.”

To the fool she says,

“Come and eat my bread,

drink the wine I have prepared!

Leave your folly and you will live,

walk in the ways of perception.” (Prov 9:1-6)

§33. Dame Folly

The feminine divine Hokmah is contrasted to another “hostess,” Dame Folly.

Dame Folly acts on impulse,

is childish and knows nothing.

She sits at the door of her house,

on a throne commanding the city,

inviting the passers-by

as they pass on their lawful occasions,

“Who is ignorant? Let him step this way.”

To the fool she says,

“Stolen waters are sweet,

and bread tastes better when eaten in secret.”

The fellow does not realise that here the Shades are gathered,

that her guests are heading for the valleys of Sheol. (Prov 9:13-18)

§34. Lady Wisdom, Mistress of the Cosmos

In the early fifth century B.C.E. Book of Job, the hymn of praise to the feminine Hokmah is continued. She is not subject to the laws of the cosmos but is its mistress. She is inaccessible to humanity, being known only by God. The feminine Hokmah is again both personified and an attribute of God. For human beings the only access to Wisdom is through fear of the Lord (cf. Prov 1:7).

But tell me, where does Wisdom come from?

Where is understanding to be found?

The road to her is still unknown to humanity,

not to be found in the land of the living.

“She is not in me” says the Abyss;

“Nor here” replies the Sea.

She cannot be bought with solid gold,

not paid for with any weight of silver,

nor be priced by the standard of the gold of Ophir,

or of precious onyx or sapphire.

No gold, no glass can match her in value,

nor for a fine gold vase can she be bartered.

Nor is there need to mention coral, nor crystal;

beside Wisdom pearls are not worth the fishing.

Topaz from Cush is worthless in comparison,

and gold, even refined, is valueless.

But tell me, where does Wisdom come from?

Where is understanding to be found?

She is outside the knowledge of every living thing,

bidden from the birds in the sky.

Perdition and Death can only say,

“We have heard reports of her.”

God alone has traced her path

and found out where she lives.

(For he sees to the ends of the earth,

and observes all that lies under heaven.)

When he willed to give weight to the wind

and measured out the waters with a gauge,

when he made the laws and rules for the rain

and mapped a route for thunderclaps to follow,

then he had her in sight, and cast her worth,

assessed her, fathomed her,

And he said to humanity,

“Wisdom?-the fear of the Lord.

Understanding?-the avoidance of evil.” (job 28:12-28)

§35. Lady Wisdom: God Facing Humanity

Baruch was the companion of the prophet Jeremiah. One “canonical” book of the Bible is attributed to him, although he did not in fact write it; two further pseudepigraphical books are also, falsely, attributed to him. The “canonical” book is not found in the Hebrew Bible, but in the Greek Septuagint Bible, and is hence called “deuterocanonical” (however, there probably was an original Hebrew text). Catholic and Orthodox Christianity accept the deuterocanonical books as an inspired part of the Bible, whereas Judaism and Protestantism place them in the so-called Apocrypha.

In this biblical Book of Baruch the references to Wisdom are to the Greek Sophia, also feminine in gender, like Hokmah in Hebrew. Baruch here also sings the praises of Lady Wisdom, who is again personified in feminine form. She is inaccessible to humanity, known only to God, the creator of all. The song intimates that only the creator of the universe can know Sophia, implying that she is coeval with creation (cf. Prov 8:23), making her an attribute of the divine Being. But in the song of praise to Lady Wisdom she is made known to humanity through Israel; she is God as known by humanity, the feminine divine face turned toward creation.

Listen, Israel, to commands that bring life;

bear, and learn what knowledge means.

Why, Israel, why are you in the country of your enemies,

growing older and older in an alien land,

sharing defilement with the dead,

reckoned with those who go to Sheol?

Because you have forsaken the fountain of Wisdom.

Had you walked in the way of God,

you would have lived in peace for ever.

Learn where knowledge is, where strength,

where understanding, and so learn

where length of days is, where life,

where the light of the eyes and where peace.

But who has found out where she lives,

who has entered her treasure house?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Nothing has been heard of her in Canaan,

nothing has been seen of her in Teman;

the sons of Hagar in search of worldly wisdom,

the merchants of Midian and Tema,

the tale-spinners and the philosophers

have none of them found the way to Wisdom,

or discovered the paths she treads.

How great, Israel, is the house of God,

how wide his domain,

immeasurably wide,

infinitely lofty!

In it were born the giants, famous to us from antiquity,

immensely tall, expert in war;

God’s choice did not fall on these,

be did not reveal the way to knowledge to them;

they perished for lack of Wisdom,

perished in their own folly.

Who has ever climbed the sky and caught her

to bring her down from the clouds?

Who has ever crossed the ocean and found her

to bring her back in exchange for the finest gold?

No one knows the way to her,

no one can discover the path she treads.

But the one who knows the knows her,

be has grasped her with his own intellect,

be has set the earth firm for ever

and filled it with four-footed beasts,

be sends the light-and it goes,

be recalls it-and trembling it obeys;

the stars shine joyfully at their set times:

when he calls them, they answer, “Here we are”;

they gladly shine for their creator.

It is he who is our God,

no other can compare with him.

He has grasped the whole way of knowledge [Wisdom],

and confided her to his servant Jacob,

to Israel his well-beloved;

so causing her to appear on earth

and move among humanity.

This is the book of the commandments of God,

the Law that stands for ever;

those who keep her live,

those who desert her die.

Turn back, Jacob, seize her,

in her radiance make your way to light:

do not yield your glory to another,

your privilege to a people not your own.

Israel, blessed are we:

what leases God has been revealed to us. (Baruch 3:9-15, 22-38; 4:1-4)

§36. Lady Wisdom Praised in Poetry

The deuterocanonical biblical book Ben Sira, or Ecclesiasticus, was written in Hebrew around 190 B.C.E. Only about two thirds of the text is available in Hebrew; the whole of it is in the Greek Septuagint.

As in Proverbs, Job, and Baruch, the sage Ben Sira sings the praises of the feminine Sophia, or Hokmah, who is personified, being created by God before all the rest of creation. Only to God is Lady Wisdom known, and to those he favors. Here she is everlasting, but created, separate from God.

All Wisdom is from the Lord,

and ... is his own for ever.

The sand of the sea and the raindrops,

and the days of eternity, who can assess them?

The height of the sky and the breadth of the earth,

and the depth of the abyss, and Wisdom who can probe them?

Before all other things Wisdom was created,

shrewd understanding is everlasting.

Wisdom’s source is the word of God in the heavens;

her ways are the eternal laws.

For whom has the root of Wisdom ever been uncovered?

Her resourceful ways, who knows them?

To whom has the knowledge of Wisdom been manifested?

And who has understood the abundance of her ways?

One only is wise, terrible indeed

seated on his throne, the Lord.

The Lord himself has created her, looked on her and assessed her,

and poured her out on all his works

to be with all humanity as his gift,

and be conveyed her to those who love him. (Ben Sira 1:1-10)

§37. Lady Wisdom Is God in Creation

Here Ben Sira surpasses his earlier praise of divine Lady Wisdom, making her not only created from eternity, a feminine person separate from God, but also the very presence of God to creation. In one instance Lady Wisdom identifies herself with the spirit (Ruach, also of feminine gender in Hebrew; see §41) of God hovering over creation in Gen 1:2. The image here, and elsewhere, of the spirit or breath of God coming forth from God’s mouth was picked up in later Jewish and Christian writing. In Christianity the development went partially to the Word of God, thence to Jesus as the Word incarnate, and partially to the Holy Spirit. The image of the pillar of cloud here is one of God’s presence among men and women (cf. Ex 13:21-22); Hokmah, Sophia, places herself therein. Feminine Wisdom again is God’s presence in creation from eternity to eternity. She partakes of the divine; this and her separate personhood led later to divine trinities and quaternities in Judaism (see Patai, Hebrew Goddess) and a divine trinity in Christianity (see pp. 57ff.).

Wisdom speaks her own praises,

in the midst of her people she glories in herself.

She opens her mouth in the assembly of the Most High,

she glories in herself in the presence of the Mighty One;

“I came forth from the mouth of the Most High,

and I covered the earth like mist.

I had my tent in the heights,

and my throne in a pillar of cloud.

Alone I encircled the vault of the sky,

and I walked on the bottom of the deeps.

Over the waves of the sea and over the whole earth,

and over every people and nation I have held sway.

Among all these I searched for rest,

and looked to see in whose territory I might pitch camp.

Then the creator of all things instructed me,

and he who created me fixed a place for my tent.

He said, ‘Pitch your tent in Jacob,

make Israel your inheritance.’

From eternity, in the beginning, he created me,

and for eternity I shall remain.

I ministered before him in the holy tabernacle,

and thus was I established on Zion.” (Ben Sira 24:1-10. Cf. also 1:11-28; 4:11-19; 6:18-37; 14:20-27; 15:1-10; and 51:13-30, where Sophia is praised and sought after by humanity as a virtue.)

§38. Lady Wisdom the Feminine Divinity

The author of the deuterocanonical Book of Wisdom (also called “The Wisdom of Solomon”) was a Jew of the first century B.C.E. from Alexandria; he wrote in Greek. The divinization of the feminine Wisdom in the Jewish biblical tradition here reaches its high point. There is no talk of Sophia being created by God. The closest thing to that notion is in Wisdom 7:15, where God is said to be the guide “of” Sophia (the ancient Arabic translation renders this as the guide, “to” Sophia, however), but that does not really limit the powerful divinizing statements. Sophia is said to possess omnipotence (7:23, 27), omnipresence (7:24), immutability (7:27), sanctity (7:22)-all clearly exclusive divine characteristics. Moreover, she participated in creation (7:12, 21), and is at present the sustainer and ruler of the world (8: 1). Still further, Sophia is described as a breath of the power of God, a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty (7:25). Sophia here is clearly the ancient Goddess rediviva!

All that is hidden, all that is plain, I have come to know,

instructed by Wisdom who designed them all.

For within her is a spirit intelligent, holy,

unique, manifold, subtle

active, incisive, unsullied,

lucid, invulnerable, benevolent, sharp,

irresistible, beneficent, loving to humanity,

steadfast, dependable, unperturbed,

almighty, all-surveying,

penetrating all intelligent, pure

and most subtle spirits;

for Wisdom is quicker to move than any motion;

she is so pure, she pervades and permeates all things.

She is a breath of the power of God,

pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty;

hence nothing impure can find a way into her.

She is a reflection of the eternal light,

untarnished mirror of God’s active power,

image of his goodness.

Although alone, she can do all;

herself unchanging, she makes all things new.

In each generation she passes into holy souls,

she makes them friends of God and prophets;

for God loves only those who live with Wisdom.

She is indeed more splendid than the sun,

she outshines all the constellations;

compared with light, she takes first place,

for light must yield to night,

but over Wisdom evil can never triumph.

She deploys her strength from one en of the earth to the other,

ordering all things for good. (Wisdom 7:21-8:1)

§39. Lady Wisdom a Divine Consort

Although, as we have seen, in the ancient world there were many theologies that spoke of consort Goddesses and Gods, wife and husband divinities, such notions were vigorously opposed and eventually, normally excluded in the Hebraic tradition, at least after the Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C.E. Here, however, in this Jewish deuterocanonical biblical Book of Wisdom, the sacred writer speaks of Sophia “living with (symbiosin) God and the Lord of All has loved her” (Wisdom 8:3), using the same word, symbiosis, for living together as he does elsewhere in the same chapter in the sense of marital connubium: “Therefore I determined to take her to live with (symbiosin) me” (8:9). “It is therefore clear that Wisdom here was regarded as God’s wife” (Patai, Hebrew Goddess, P. 139). The renowned first-century Jewish thinker Philo stated straight out that God is the husband of Sophia (Philo, On the Cherubim XIV.49; Loeb Classical Library, Philo, Vol. 2, p. 39). As a reinforcement of this clear statement in Wisdom 8:3, the sage adds the prayer, “Grant’ me Sophia, consort [paredron; literally, “the one sitting beside”] of your throne; ... send her forth from your throne of glory to help me” (9:4, 10). If more were needed, the Wisdom writer adds that Sophia was “an initiate in the mysteries of God’s knowledge, making choice of the works he is to do; ... where is there a greater than Sophia; ... she who knows your works, she who was present when you made the world; ... she knows and understands everything” (8:4, 6; 9:9, 11).

Her (Sophia’s) living with God (symbiosin) lends lustre to her noble birth,

since the Lord of All has loved her.

Yes, she is an initiate in the mysteries of God’s knowledge,

making choice of the works he is to do.

If in this life wealth be a desirable possession,

what is more wealthy than Wisdom whose work is everywhere?

Or if it be the intellect that is at work,

where is there a greater than Wisdom, designer of all?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

“God of our ancestors,

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

grant me Wisdom, consort of your throne.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

With you is Wisdom, she who knows your works,

she who was present when you made the world;

she understands what is pleasing in our eyes

and what agrees with your commandments.

Despatch her from the holy heavens,

send her forth from throne of glory

to help me and to toil with me

and teach me what is pleasing to you,

since she knows and understands everything.” (Wisdom 8:3-6; 9:1, 4, 9-10)

§40. Feminine Divine Wisdom in the New Testament

Twice it is recorded in the Gospels that Jesus spoke of feminine divine Wisdom.

“For John came, neither eating nor drinking, and they say ... The Son of Man came, eating and drinking, and they say ... Yet Wisdom (Sophia) has been proved right by her actions.” (Mt 11:18-19)

“And that is why the Wisdom (Sophia) of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles.’ “ (Lk 11:49)


It should be apparent that the religion of the ancient Hebrews depicted the divine in feminine as well as masculine imagery. Two pressures were exerted on this androgynous imagery with the passage of the centuries: one was to transcend all sexual and other material descriptions in favor of God as spirit; the other was to suppress the feminine imagery in favor of a totally masculine one. As long as the first tendency was kept in balance, that is, did not make the human perception of God anemic and ineffective, it was in the direction of “progress,” i.e., it further “humanized” and “divinized” humanity. The second tendency, however, was simply reactionary, dehumanizing and dedivinizing humanity by splitting it into oppressor and oppressed groups. Still, the oppressive pressure did not entirely submerge the feminine image of the divine in the Hebrew Bible; the above material traces the outline of its persistence.

There are two other terms of the Hebrew Bible which are feminine in grammatical gender and which ought also to be noted here. They are Ruach, spirit; and Torah, teaching, Law, or commandment (the latter will be treated below in §45 with the postbiblical Jewish material). Of course not every Hebrew word with a feminine gender reflected feminine thought imagery. But both of these terms are very closely connected with the biblical talk about God; they do in fact at times become personifications of aspects of God; as such, in later biblical texts they take on some of the qualities of a feminine divine or quasi-divine personification; and, finally, both provide a source for feminine divine or quasi-divine personifications in post-Hebrew Bible Jewish and Christian traditions.

§41. The (Feminine) Spirit of God Hypostatized

In many instances the spirit of God is described as separate from God, a distinct substance or hypostasis; at times the term “holy spirit” of God is used thus. A few examples spread over the whole biblical period will suffice here:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.... And God’s spirit hovered over the water. (Gen 1:1-2)

Yahweh said, “My spirit must not for ever be disgraced in humanity.” (Gen 6:3)

Raising his eyes Balaam saw Israel, encamped by tribes; the spirit of God came on him. (Num 24:2)

The spirit of God has made me. (Job 33:4)

Do not deprive me of your holy spirit. (Ps 5 1:11)

When you send forth your spirit, they are created. (Ps 104:30)

Where could I go to escape your spirit? (Ps 139:7)

Since you are my God may your good spirit guide me. (Ps 143:10)

[Yahweh] said, “Truly they are my people.” . . . But they rebelled, they grieved his holy spirit.... Where is he who endowed him with his holy spirit? (Is 63:8, 10, 11)

The spirit of Yahweh then entered me, and made me stand up, and spoke to me. (Ezek 3:24)

Elisha was filled with his holy spirit. (Ben Sira 48:12, following the fifth century A.D. Alexandrinus manuscript, which adds the word “holy,” hagiou.)

Clearly the term “spirit” is used with a variety of meanings in these several sample passages. The spirit is that aspect of God which relates to creation, particularly humanity, by which God enters into a human being, and through which a human being comes into contact with God-becomes holy through God’s holy spirit. Of course, all through this Hebrew writing the divine spirit, Ruach, is feminine in gender, with the adjectives and verbs following in form.

§42. Feminine Divine Spirit and Wisdom Identified

While the spirit of God is hypostatized in these and other passages, this originally probably was only a literary device to focus on the divine relationship to creation, especially humanity. However, with the Book of Wisdom the Spirit comes close to being something more than a mere metaphor, just as does Wisdom, with which it is at times likened and even identified.

No, Wisdom will never make its way into a crafty soul; ... the holy spirit of Wisdom [some versions say: instruction] shuns deceit .... For Wisdom is Spirit, loving to humanity (philanthropon gar pneuma sophia)... The Spirit of the Lord, indeed  fills the whole world, holds all things together and knows every sound uttered. (Wisdom 1:4-7)

All that is hidden, all that is plain, I have come to know, instructed by Wisdom who designed them all. For in her is Spirit, intelligent, holy unique (Estin gar en aute pneuma noeron hagion)... (Wisdom 7:21-22)

As for your intention, who could have learnt it, had you not granted Wisdom and sent your Holy Spirit from above? (Wisdom 9:17)




§43. Even Qumran

At about the same time as the Book of Wisdom, that is, the first century B.C.E., one of the members of the Jewish sect at Qumran near the Dead Sea (which tended to be very negative toward women and sex) wrote a prayer that addressed God both as father and as mother, thus continuing the same ancient tradition discussed above in §17; it is also a natural concomitant of the imagery of Wisdom as a divine consort as expressed in the Wisdom literature:

My father does not concern himself with me

in comparison with you my mother has left me,

but you are father of all thy faithful

and you rejoiced at those like a loving mother at her infant

and like a nurse you cherish in your bosom all your creatures.

(1QH ix. 35f.)

§44. Yahweh and Sophia: Divine Consorts

Philo was an extraordinary Jewish thinker from Alexandria in Egypt. He lived before and during the first half of the first century of the Common Era, which made him a contemporary of Hillel, Jesus of Nazareth, Paul of Tarsus, and Johanan ben Zachai. Alexandria of Philo’s day contained an extremely prosperous Jewish community, quite possibly the largest in the world, for the city was very large and was perhaps 40 percent Jewish. Philo had been to Jerusalem and knew the biblical tradition well, but wrote in Greek. Hence when he wrote of the Hebrew Elohim he used the Creek word for God, Theos.

In Philo the tradition of Lady Wisdom, Hokmah, Sophia in Greek, very much continues the ancient Goddess line that was reflected in the Hebrew Bible and reached an acme in the Book of Wisdom, analyzed just above. Philo clearly speaks of Sophia (sometimes with synonyms like Knowledge, Gnosis) as God’s wife. The process creation is represented in the following passage symbolically but quite unequivocally as procreation.

The Architect who made this universe was at the same time the Father of what was thus born, whilst its mother was the Knowledge possessed by its Maker. With His Knowledge (gnosis) God (theos) had union, not as human have it, and begot created tings. And Knowledge, having received the divine seed, when her travail was consummated, bore the only beloved son who is apprehended by the senses, the world which we see. Thus in the pages of one of the inspired company, Wisdom (sophia) is represented as speaking of herself after this manner: ‘God obtained me first of all his works and founded me before the ages.” [Prov 8:22] True, for it was necessary that all that came to the birth of creation should be younger than the Mother and Nurse of the All.... I suggest then, that the Father of the schools, with its regular course or round of instruction ... The Husband of Wisdom drops the seed of happiness for the race of mortals into good and virgin soil. (Philo, On Drunkenness, VIII.80 and IX.33; Loeb Classical Library, Philo, Vol. 3, pp. 333-335; On the Cherubim, XIV.49, Loeb Classical Library, Philo, Vol. 2, p. 39)

§45. Torah, Daughter of Yahweh

a. Feminine Wisdom and Torah Identified

Torah, Hebrew for “teaching,” or “Law,” as it is most often translated, is not only feminine in gender, but as it takes on the character in the Jewish tradition of a quasi-divine personification it also projects a feminine personality into the divine family. Particularly after the sixth-century B.C.E. return of the Jewish remnant from exile the study and living of the Torah became ever more prominent in Jewish life. The longest psalm in the Bible, Ps 119, is devoted entirely to the praise of the Torah, which is identified with God’s Word (dabar). Perhaps the earliest personification of the feminine Torah occurred in Ben Sira, or Ecclesiasticus (190 B.C.E.), who sang at length the praises of feminine divine Wisdom, Hokmah, and then expressly identified her with Torah.

Wisdom speaks her own praises,

in the midst of her people she glories in herself.

She opens her mouth in the assembly of the Most High,

she glories in herself in the presence of the Mighty One;

I came forth from the mouth of the Most High....

From eternity, in the beginning, he created me.” . . ,

All this is no other than the book of the covenant of the Most High God,

the Law [Torah] that Moses enjoined on us.”

(Ben Sira 24:1-3, 9, 23)

b. Feminine Wisdom and Torah Identified by Rabbis

The rabbis continued and intensified this identification of the feminine quasi-divine Torah with the feminine divine Hokmah.

R. Hoseia the Elder [c. 225 C.E.] began his lecture with Proverbs 8: 30: “1 (Hokmah equals Torah) was with him a skilled worker [female], a delight day by day. The Torah says: I am the instrument of God.... Likewise God looked at the Torah [as a blueprint] and thus made the world. And the Torah spoke Genesis 1:1: “Through the First One [the rabbi here understands the first word of Genesis, bereshit, to mean “through the First One,” rather than the usual “in the beginning”] God created the heavens and the earth,” and the “First One” is none other than the Torah, as it says in

Proverbs 8:22: “Yahweh made me (Hokmah equals Torah) as the First One of his works.” (Genesis Rabbah 1)

R. Simeon b. Laquish [c. 250 C.E.] said: “By 200 years the Torah preceded the creation of the world; that is the meaning of Proverbs 8:30: 1 (Hokmah equals Torah) was with him a skilled worker [female], a delight day by day.” (Genesis Rabbah 8(6a); for other citations, see Hermann L. Strack and Paul Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch, Vol. 2, pp. 353ff.; Munich: 1922-1928)

c. Feminine Torah Pre-Existent

It was not only in identifying the feminine Torah with Hokmah that the rabbis spoke of Torah’s numinous pre-creation character. The following are a few other such examples.

Seven things were made before the world was made, namely, the Torah, repentance, the garden of Eden, Gehenna, the throne of glory, the Holy, and the name of the Messiah. (Talmud bPesachirn 54a)

She [Torah] lay on God’s lap while God sat on the throne of glory. (Midrash Psalm 90, 3, 12 [Buber 196a])

God said to Israel: “Before I made this world I prepared the Torah.” (Exodus Rabbah 30 [89d]; for further citations, see Strack and Billerbeck, Vol. 2, pp. 335 ff., and Vol. 3, pp. 43 5 ff.)

d. Torah God’s Daughter

The rabbis developed the feminine personification of Torah further than by identifying her with the feminine divine Hokmah and combining the feminine gender of the word with the literary hypostatization of it. They also had God speak of Torah as his daughter, again giving her a divine character.

Whoever recites a verse of the Song of Songs and (thereby) makes it into a sort of (secular) song ... brings illness into the world: then the Torah on sackcloth and goes before God and says before him: “Lord of the world, your children have made me a zither like the pagans play on!” He answers her: “My daughter, if they only cat and drink with what shall they concern I themselves?” (Talmud bSanhedrin 101a)

“God said. . . . My daughter, that is, the Torah.” (Leviticus Rabbah 20 [120a])

They said to him, “Perhaps tomorrow you will allow your Shekhinah [see below for a discussion of this feminine divine “personification”] to dwell with those below!” God answered them [his angels]: “My Torah I grant to those below but I dwell here with those above. I send my daughter for her marriage  contract into another land so she along with her spouse may be honored on  account of her beauty and charm, for she is the daughter of a king and she will be honored; but I will dwell with you, with those above.” (Midrash Song of Songs 8, 11[133b]; for further citations, see Strack and Billerbeck, Vol. 2, pp. 355ff.)

Thus, beginning at least two hundred years before the Common Era, there was a movement in the Hebraic-Judaic tradition to personify the feminine Torah and give her a quasi-divine or divine character, which movement intensified on into the rabbinic period during the Common, or Christian, Era.

§46. The Shekhinah, Rabbis, and a Feminine Divinity

Shekhinah is a feminine Hebrew word for “dwelling,” and refers to God’s dwelling or presence in the world. It was first used in the Targums (translations or paraphrases of the Bible from around the first century C.E.) to avoid referring to God directly, out of reverence. It also appeared frequently in the early rabbinic writings, but did not take on the quality of the feminine dimension of God until the Middle Ages in the writings of the Jewish mystics, the Kabbalists. The foremost scholar of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem, writes:

In all the numerous references to the Shekhinah in the Talmud and Midrashim ... there is no hint that it represents a feminine element in God. ... Nowhere is there a dualism with the Shekhinah, as the feminine, opposed to the “Holy One, praise be to Him,” as the masculine element in God. (Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, p. 225; Schocken Books, 1941)

Nevertheless, there were some rabbinic references to the motherlike equalities of God in the early rabbinic materials. For example, Shemuel bar Nahman, a rabbi of the late third and early fourth century C.E., quoted Ps 103:13 and Is 66:13 (see above), and then went beyond them with a statement he put in God’s mouth.

It is the wont of the father to have mercy’ “Like as a father has compassion upon them that fear Him”; and it is the wont of the mother to comfort, “as one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you.” God said: “I shall do as both father and mother.” (Midrash Pesiqta Rabbah 139a)

§47. The Feminine God in Jewish Mysticism

Although the feminine dimension of God does not become pronounced in Jewish mysticism until the Middle Ages, and hence is beyond the chronological scope of this book, because the trajectory of the feminine in the divine began before the Hebrew tradition, continued through the Hebrew Bible, the Apocrypha, and Philo, and then faded from view, only to reappear in the medieval Kabbala, a very few examples from the Kabbala will be provided. But first a word about the importance of the Shekhinah as the feminine element in God from Gershom Scholem.

The introduction of this idea was one of the most important and lasting innovations of Kabbalism. The fact that it obtained recognition in spite of the obvious difficulty of reconciling it with the conception of the absolute Unity of God, and that no other element of Kabbalism won such a deep degree of popular approval, is proof that it responded to a deep-seated religious need. (Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, p. 225)

a. God the Mother and Father

There are many passages in kabbalistic writings, particularly the most celebrated of them, the thirteenth-century Zohar, in which the feminine and masculine dimensions of God are expressed most explicitly. The language sounds very much like that of the ancient Gods and Goddesses, of Proverbs, Hokmah, the developed Sophia language of the Book of Wisdom and Philo, and that of the Christian Gnostics, to be discussed below. However, doubtless, as with the Christian belief in a Trinity, the Jewish kabbalistic teachings about the Mother (other terms are also used) and the Father in God also presumes monotheism. What is of note here is that the female and the male dimensions are both seen as essential elements in divinity.

Never does the inclination of the Father and the Mother toward each other cease. They always go out together and dwell together. They never separate and never leave each other. They are together in complete union. ... The Father and the Mother, since they are found in union all the time are never bidden or separated from each other, are called “Companions.” ... And they find complete satisfaction incomplete union. (Zohar  I. 162a-b; III . 77b-78a)

b. A Jewish Divine Quaternity: Female and Male

Also, many are the kabbalistic passages that speak not only of the Mother and Father God, but also the Son and Daughter (sometimes called Matronit) God. Let one suffice here; it is connected with the Tetragrammaton, the four consonants in God’s Hebrew name: YHWH.

The Supernal H [i.e., the Mother] became pregnant as a result of all the love and fondling-since the Y never leaves her-and she brought forth the W [the Son], whereupon she stood up and suckled him. And when the W emerged, his female mate [the Daughter, represented by the second H in the Tetragrammaton] emerged with him. (Zohar III.77b)

c. Union with the Feminine Divinity

The goal of mysticism is the union of the human with the divine. Since in the Jewish mystical tradition the Divinity, insofar as it relates to creation, is known as the female Shekhinah, it is with her that the Jewish mystic strives for union. This of course simply continues the ancient Hebrew tradition of Hokmah being God vis-a-vis creation, with whom union was avidly sought by human beings. In one instance in the Zohar this union of a human being (Moses-he was the only case) with the Shekhinah was described as having taken place in terms of sexual intercourse (analogous to the “coming upon” Mary the mother of Jesus by the Holy Spirit in Lk 1:35 and Mt 1:20).

The Matronit* ... became mated (isdavga) with Moses. Moses had intercourse (shimesh) while he was in the body of the moon.* (Zohar I.21b22a)

*[The Matronit is here a synonym for Shekhinah; the moon is a symbol of the Shekhinah.]

d. The Shekhinah and a Female Messiah

In the seventeenth century one offshoot of Jewish mysticism, Sabbatianism, developed a trinitarian notion of God, including the Shekhinah, who had a corresponding female Messiah.

The object of religion, the goal of our prayers, can only be “the God of Israel” and its unity or union with his Shekhinah. From this original dualism some Sabbatians developed a Trinity of the unknown God, the God of Israel and the Shekhinah, and it did not take long for the idea to develop that the completion of Salvation is dependent upon the appearance of a Messiah for each of these three aspects of Trinity, with a female Messiah for the last! (Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, p. 320)

e. Kabbala Nevertheless Fundamentally Masculine

Despite the projection of a feminine dimension in the Divinity by Jewish mysticism, two counterpuntal elements should be noted: one, the female represents not the tender but the stern; two, like most of the rest of Judaism, Kabbalism is by and for men.

It is of the essence of Kabbalistic symbolism that woman represents not, as one might be tempted to expect, the quality of tenderness but that of stern judgment .... Both historically and metaphysically it is a masculine doctrine, made for men and by men. The long history of Jewish mysticism shows no trace of feminine influence. There have been no women Kabbalists; Rabia of early Islamic mysticism, Mechthild of Magdeburg, Juliana of Norwich, Theresa de Jesus, and the many other feminine representatives of Christian mysticism have no counterparts in the history of Kabbalism. (Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, p. 36)


Because the Book of Wisdom was written originally in Greek (most likely by a Jew of Alexandria in the first century B.C.E.), the word used for Wisdom is Sophia, which, like the Hebrew Hokmah, is feminine in gender and imagery. As noted above, the Hebrew word for Spirit of God, Ruach, is also feminine. However, the Greek word for Spirit, Pneuma, is not feminine, but neuter. Nevertheless, in the Book of Wisdom the two, Wisdom and Spirit, are identified. Because the tradition of Wisdom as feminine was so strong, plus the fact that Spirit is also feminine in Hebrew, though neuter in Greek, the identification of the Spirit of God with Lady Wisdom has at times in the Christian tradition led to the imaging of the Holy Spirit as feminine. A few examples follow.

§48. Holy Spirit the Mother of Jesus - I

In the second-century Coptic-language apocryphal Epistle of James (see below, pp. 66f., for a brief discussion of apocryphal and Gnostic Christian writings), the Holy Spirit is cast in the image of the parent of Jesus; since elsewhere in the epistle God the Father is referred to as Jesus’ father, presumably the Holy Spirit is meant to be Jesus’ mother. The risen Christ says to James and the other disciples:

You are chosen, you are like the Son of the Holy Spirit. (Vigiliae Christianae, Vol. 8, 1954, p. 12)

§49. Holy Spirit the Mother of Jesus - II

Another motherly image of the Holy Spirit is found in the apocryphal Gospel to the Hebrews, written around A.D. 150.

And it came to pass when the Lord [Jesus at his baptism in the Jordan River] came up out of the water, the whole fount of the Holy Spirit descended upon him and rested on him and said to him: My son ... thou art my first-begotten Son that reignest for ever. (Edgar Hennecke and Wilhelm Schneemelcher, eds., New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. 1, pp. 163-164; Westminster Press, 1963)

§50. Holy Spirit the Mother of Jesus -III

If there be any doubt that the Holy Spirit was depicted in the Gospel to the Hebrews as Jesus’ mother, the following quotation will lay it to rest.

Even so did my mother, the Holy Spirit, take me by one of my hairs and carry me away onto the great mountain Thabor. (Ibid., p. 164)

§ 51. The Holy Spirit Is a Woman - I

In the third-century Gnostic Christian apocryphal Gospel of Philip the Holy Spirit of God is at one place assumed to be a woman, as is clear from the quotation below referring to the Matthean and Lukan claims of the virginal conception of Jesus.

Some said, “Mary conceived by the Holy Spirit.” They are in error. They do not know what they are saying. When did a woman ever conceive by a woman? Mary is the virgin.... (Gospel of Philip, The Nag Hammadi Library, tr. by James M. Robinson et al., p. 134; Harper & Row, 1977)

§ 52. The Holy Spirit Is a Woman - II

The Acts of Thomas, an early third-century Gnostic Christian apocryphal writing, contains several lengthy prayers and one brief one, which address or refer to the Holy Spirit in feminine imagery. The three lengthy prayers are all epicleses, that is, prayers calling on the Holy Spirit to descend upon the liturgical matter, usually the bread and wine used in the celebration of the Eucharist. The first orthodox text of one is from Hippolytus in the early third century, contemporaneous with the Acts of Thomas. In the latter, two of the epicleses are invocations of the Holy Spirit at a Eucharist, but one is connected with Confirmation, which is also customary in orthodox Catholic Christianity. The connections between the feminine Wisdom, the Mother (Mater Magna, the Goddess), love, the Eucharist, the dove (symbol of the Goddess, and of the Holy Spirit, discussed in §55), and the Holy Spirit are all obvious.

“O Jesus Christ, ... we glorify and praise thee and thine invisible Father and thy Holy Spirit and the Mother of all creation.” (Acts of Thomas, Edgar Hennecke and Wilhelm Schneemelcher, eds., New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. 2, p. 465; Westminster Press, 1966)

And the apostle took the oil and pouring it on their heads anointed and chrismed them, and began to say:

Come, holy name of Christ that is above every name;

Come, power of the Most High and perfect compassion;

Come, thou highest gift;

Come, compassionate mother;

Come, fellowship of the male;

Come, thou (fem.) that dost reveal the bidden mysteries;

Come, mother of the seven houses, that thy rest may be in the eighth house;

Come, elder of the five members, understanding, thought, prudence, consideration, reasoning,

Communicate with these young men!

Come, Holy Spirit, and purify their reins and their heart

And give them the added seal in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit. (Ibid., pp. 456-457)

And spreading a linen cloth, he set upon it the bread of blessing. And the apostle stood beside it and said: “Jesus, who bast made us worthy to partake of the Eucharist of thy holy body and blood, behold we make bold to approach thy Eucharist, and to call upon thy holy name; come thou and have fellowship with us!” And he began to say:

Come, gift of the Most High;

Come, perfect compassion;

Come, fellowship of the male;

Come, Holy Spirit;

Come, thou that dost know the mysteries of the Chosen;

Come, thou that bast part in all the combats of the noble Athlete;

Come, treasure of glory;

Come, darling of the compassion of the Most High;

Come, silence

That dost reveal the great deeds of the whole greatness;

And make the ineffable manifest;

Holy Dove

That bearest the twin young;

Come, hidden Mother; Come, thou that art manifest in thy deeds and dost furnish joy

And rest for all that are joined with thee;

Come and partake with us in this Eucharist

Which we celebrate in thy name,

And in the love-feast

In which we are gathered together at thy call.

And when he had said this, he marked the Cross upon the bread and broke it, and began to distribute it. And first he gave to the woman, saying: “Let this be to thee for forgiveness of sins and eternal transgressions!” And after her he gave also to all the others who had received the seal. (Ibid., pp. 470-471)

And when they were baptized and clothed, he set bread upon the table and blessed it and said: “Bread of life, those who cat of which remain incorruptible; bread which fills hungry souls with its blessing ... we name over thee the name of the mother of the ineffable mystery of the bidden dominions and powers, we name over thee the name of Jesus.” (Ibid., p. 512)

§53. The Deaconess a Type of the Holy Spirit

In the third-century A.D. orthodox Christian document written in Syriac (a Semitic language, derived from the earlier Aramaic), the Didascalia, the imagery moves in the other direction. Then woman, a deaconess, is likened to the Holy Spirit.

And the deaconess shall be honored by you as a type of the Holy Spirit. (Didascalia 11.26.4)

§54. The Holy Spirit, Mother of Humanity

The tradition continued in the Syriac-speaking area (“spirit” also has the feminine gender in Syriac, as in Hebrew), as in the writings of the fourth-century orthodox Christian father Aphraates.

A man who is yet unmarried loves and honors God his father and the Holy Spirit his mother. (Aphraates, Homily XVIII.10-on Genesis 2:24)

§55. The Dove, Symbol of the Holy Spirit and the “Great Mother”

The dove appears many times in the Hebrew Bible, but its most pervasive symbolic meaning is “love,” as is amply exemplified, especially in the Song of Songs. In Christian tradition it is also immediately connected with the Holy Spirit, for all four Gospels, in speaking of the baptism of Jesus, say that “the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily shape, like a dove” (Lk 3:22; cf. Mt 3:16; Mk 1:10; Jn 1:33). Of course, in Christian tradition the Holy Spirit is also said to be the spirit of love, so that the two currents of meaning flow together. But it is also particularly interesting to note that the dove is also a very ancient symbol for the Goddess of Love, which of course fits perfectly well with the Hebrew Bible symbol of love and the Christian carry-over of the feminine Wisdom traditions to the Holy Spirit, who is also the Spirit of Love, and thus also the Christian continuance of the Goddess of Love, the Mater Magna, the "Great Mother."

However, since the most ancient times the dove is the holy animal not only of the Cyprian Aphrodite, but also of almost all the Goddesses of Fertility and Love of the Near East. Already in neolithic times the "Great Mother" who was venerated in Crete was represented with dove and lily. The Greek word for dove, peristera, means "bird of Istar," the Assyrian-Babylonian Goddess of Love, but also of the Underworld and Death. Istar had many names: Astarte (Ashtoreth) and Hathor, Inanna and Nut, Cybele and Isis, and many others. However, as also with the Greek Aphrodite and the Roman Venus, the dove was always holy to them. Often they themselves appeared winged, like a great dove brooding over the world, as in Knossos and Mycenae, in Sicily and Carthage, on the Euphrates and on Cyprus, and even in India. Doves were culticly protected; great towers were built for them in which they could nest; they were called columbaria (columba is the Latin word for dove). Columbaria, dove houses, were also known in ancient Rome, however, as grave chambers with niches for urns.

The dove is the only symbol for the Holy Spirit that is permitted by the Church. Thus the figure of the dove in the cupolas or over the high altars of Diessen, Dietramszell, Etta], Ottobeuren, Vierzehnheiligen, Weingarten, and the Wieskirche also point to the "Great Mother" just as much as do the fact that the cathedrals of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, Kiev, and many other Orthodox cities are consecrated to heavenly Wisdom, which is presented in feminine form. (Gerd-Klaus Kaltenbrunner, "Ist der Heilige Geist weiblich?" Una Sancta, 1977, pp. 275ff.)

§56. Feminine Holy Spirit in Church Art

Let two visible examples indicate that this Christian tradition of depicting the Holy Spirit as feminine continued on into the Middle Ages even in the West. One is a small twelfth-century Catholic church in the tiny village of Urschalling near Prien am Chiemsee, southeast of Munich, which has a fourteenth-century fresco depicting the Holy Trinity. It has three human forms for the upper half of the body and the lower half wrapped in a single cloak so that there would appear to be one body below. One of the upper figures is an old man with a white beard, one is a young man with a dark beard, and in the middle is a woman-Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The second is a sculpture of the Holy Trinity crowning Mary Queen of Heaven. Again there is a man with a white beard, the Father; a man with a dark beard, the Son; and a woman, the Holy Spirit. The sculpture is in the early fifteenth-century parish church of Eggenfelden in Bavaria.

§57. The Gifts of the Holy Spirit

In Christian theology the identification of the feminine Hebraic spirit, Ruach, with the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, is reflected in the association of the words of Is 11:1-2 with the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: counsel, piety, fortitude, fear of the Lord knowledge, understanding, wisdom (see Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I.II.69).

But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse,

and from his roots a bud shall blossom.

The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him:

a spirit of wisdom and of understanding,

A spirit of counsel and of strength,

a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD. (Is 11:1-2; the  Septuagint and Vulgate translations add “piety,” making seven “gifts “ of the Spirit.)

§58. The Wisdom and the Word of God Paralleled

It should also be noted that in the Christian tradition the texts concerning the feminine Wisdom in the Hebraic-Judaic tradition are at times associated with the feminine Spirit, as discussed, and also at times with the Word or Logos (masculine in Greek) of God, which in the Gospel of John is identified with both God and Jesus as the Word incarnate. Already in the pre-Christian period a near-identification of Word and Wisdom is made (in Hebraic-Judaic poetry a statement is balanced with the same thought in synonymous terms):

God of our ancestors, Lord of mercy,

who by your Word (Logos) have made all things,

and in your Wisdom (Sophia) fitted humanity to rule ... (Wisdom 9:1-2)

§59. Wisdom, the Goddess Isis, the Word of God, and Jesus Paralleled

Paul speaks of Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, and then identifies Christ with feminine Wisdom: “We are preaching a crucified Christ ... who is ... the Wisdom (Sophia) of God” (I Cor 1:24-25). In the deutero-Pauline epistle to the Colossians there is a primitive Christian hymn (Col 1:15-20) which speaks of Jesus in terms very like those of the feminine Wisdom of God, e.g., he was with God when all things were created, and through him they were created. In John’s Gospel, Jesus also speaks of himself (Jn 6:35) in language that is likewise very much akin to that of feminine Divine Wisdom, i.e., Jesus, like Wisdom, invites all to come and eat and drink from him (cf. Prov 9:1-6 and Ben Sira 24:19-22). The like is also true of the Prologue of John’s Gospel where the Word, Logos, similarly to Hokmah-Sophia, was said to be from the beginning with God, indeed, was God through whom all things were created, enlightening all humanity. The parallel of John’s Logos hymn to Hokmah-Sophia is so striking that scholars such as Rudolf Bultmann have suggested the hymn was originally a Sophia hymn and “Logos” was substituted by the author of the Prologue (see Gerhard Kittel, Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament, Vol. 4, p. 136; Stuttgart, 1942).

The Catholic scholar Elizabeth Schuessler Fiorenza carried the analysis a step further when she concluded that not only was Jesus identified with the Logos, Word of God, and substituted in place of feminine Sophia in the several New Testament Christological hymns, but because the source of Sophia was the goddess Isis (see p. 36) Jesus Christ also paralleled or assimilated many of the traits of Isis.

Isis virtually took the place of all the other gods and goddesses and she claimed that their names and functions were only names and various titles and functions of her own. Like Isis, Jesus Christ is in the hymn Phil. 2:6-11 given a name which is “above all names.”...Furthermore: as Isis’s true name is “Isis the Queen” (kyria, sometimes kyrios), so the true name of Jesus Christ is lord (kyrios).... just as the Jewish-Hellenistic wisdom speculation appropriated elements from the Isis myth and cult, so too does the Christian proclamation of the cosmic lordship of Jesus Christ borrow its language and categories from the Hellenistic religions, perhaps from the Isis myth and cult. In this milieu where the hymns and aretologies of Isis are found, the Christian community conceives hymns in praise of Jesus Christ as the preexistent

one who appeared on earth and is now exalted and enthroned as lord of the whole cosmos. (Elizabeth Schuessler Fiorenza, “Wisdom Mythology and the Christological Hymns of the New Testament,” in Robert L. Wilken, ed., Aspects of Wisdom in Judaism and Early Christianity, pp. 35f.; University of Notre Dame Press, 1975)

§60. Sophia Christology

In analyzing the Gospel of Matthew, James M. Robinson found that already in the Q materials (putative pre-Matthew and Luke sayings of Jesus-see below, pp. 251ff.) and in the way Matthew used them one finds a Sophia Christology, an identification of the feminine Sophia and Jesus. This Sophia Christology continued on into the post-Apostolic Writings (post-New Testament) Christian tradition.

The thanksgiving that in Q culminated in the identification of Jesus with Sophia follows immediately in Matthew, who appends further wisdom material which, like the culmination of that Q section, is applicable to Jesus only because he is Sophia incarnate (11:28-30):

Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

These concepts, familiar in wisdom literature, are also applied to the Torah [see §45], and hence point to another trait of Matthew’s Sophia christology. Judaism had already identified Sophia with the Torah, by affirming that Sophia, so often rejected by men and having no permanent abode on earth, had come to reside in the Torah (Ecclus. 24). It would fit well with Matthean theology in general to see in the Jewish concept of the “incarnation” of Sophia in the Torah an analogy for carrying through the identification of Sophia with Jesus.

Matthew’s Sophia christology is also apparent in his editing of a second wisdom section of Q. The Q saying that began (Luke 11:49): “Therefore also the Wisdom of Cod said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles,’” is edited by Matthew (23:34): “Therefore I send you prophets wise men and scribes.” It is not enough to say Matthew simply eliminated the reference to Sophia. Rather one must recognize that he identifies Sophia with Jesus, by attributing to Jesus not only a saying previously attributed to Sophia, but by attributing to Jesus the content of the saying, namely, Sophia’s role as the heavenly personage who throughout history has sent the prophets and other spokesmen. It is to himself as preexistent Sophia that he refers in saying a few verses later (Matt. 23:37): “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings....”

By this time, i.e., the first half of the second century C.E., the identification of Jesus as Sophia had become widespread. In Justin (Dialogue 100.4) on, reads that Jesus “is also called Sophia ... in the words of the prophets.” (James M. Robinson, “Jesus as Sophos and Sophia: Wisdom Tradition and the Gospels,” in Wilken, Aspects of Wisdom in Judaism and Early Christianity, pp. 10-12)

Origen (A.D. 185-254) continued the Sophia Christology tradition when, after discussing a number of titles given to Jesus by the Gospels, he concluded that Wisdom was the most ancient and appropriate one.

Thus if we collect the titles of Jesus, the question arises which of them were conferred on him late, and would never have assumed such importance if the saints had begun and had also persevered in blessedness. Perhaps Wisdom would be the only remaining one.... (Origen, Commentary on John 1.109-113)

§61. Feminine Wisdom, Feminine Holy Spirit, Sometimes Feminine Word of God

Thus, the feminine divine Wisdom of the Hebraic-Judaic tradition bifurcated in the Christian tradition, partly retaining the usual Hebraic association with the feminine divine Spirit (Ruach) by identification with the Holy Spirit (at times also feminine in Christian tradition), and partly shifting to the rare Judaic association with the masculine Word, Logos, of God. The results were, then, that in Christian tradition one person of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit, is identified with the feminine divine Wisdom and is at times described in feminine imagery, and a second person of the Trinity, the Word, is also identified with the feminine divine Wisdom, but is only rarely described in feminine imagery, as in the following examples.

a. Anselm of Canterbury

The great eleventh-century Western Christian theologian Anselm of Canterbury composed the following prayer:

But thou also Jesus, good Lord, art thou not also Mother? Art thou not Mother who art like a hen [see § 118] which gathers her chicks under her wings? Truly, Lord, thou art also Mother. For what others have labored with and brought forth, they have received from thee. Thou first, for their sake and for. those they bring forth, in labor went dead, and by dying bast brought forth.... Thou, therefore, soul, dead of thyself, run under the wings of Jesus thy Mother and bewail under her feathers thy afflictions. Beg that she heal thy wounds, and that healed, she may restore thee to life. Mother Christ, who gatherest thy chicks under thy wings this dead chick of thine puts himself under thy wing. (Anselm “Oratio ad sanctum Paulum,” J. P. Migne, Patrologia Latina, Vol. 158, cols. 981f.)

b. Dame Julian of Norwich

The fourteenth-century English mystic Dame Julian of Norwich wrote the following about “Our tender Mother Jesus”:

And thus is Jesus our true Mother in kind [nature] of our first making; and he is our true Mother in grace by his taking of our made kind. All the fair working and all the sweet kindly offices of most dear Motherhood are appropriated to the second Person. (Dame Julian of Norwich, The Revelations of Divine Love of Julian of Norwich, tr. by James Walsh, Ch. 59; London: Burns & Oates, 1961)

c. Gregory Palamas

The fourteenth-century Greek Orthodox mystic-theologian Gregory Palamas wrote in the same vein:

Christ ... nurses us from his own breast as a mother, filled with tender, ness, does with her babies. (Gregory Palamas, quoted in George H. Tavard Woman in Christian Tradition, p. 158; University of Notre Dame Press; 1973)

§62. An Androgynous God in Catholic Christianity

Very early the term “catholic” came to be used by many Christians to refer to those who had established themselves as orthodox. Among such “orthodox” Christians there was at least one Christian father, Clement of Alexandria (150-215 A.D.-he was listed as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church until the seventeenth century), who wrote of God in androgynous terms. He links essentially God’s Fatherhood with Motherhood, love and creation, and speaks of the Father’s womb (kolpon) which “brought forth” (exegesato) the only-begotten (monogenes) Son, not of Mother or of Father but of God (Huios Theou), underlining both androgyny and unity.

For what is more essential to God than the mystery of love?

Look then into the womb (kolpon) of the Father

Which alone has brought forth the only-begotten Son of Cod.

God is love,

And for love of us has become woman (ethelynthe).*

The ineffable being of the Father has out of compassion with us become mother.

By loving the Father has become woman (Agapesas ho Pater ethelynthe). (Clement of Alexandria, “Quis Dives Salvetur,” J. P. Migne, Patrologia Graeca, Vol. 9 col. 641)

*[As corrected in Migne; from thelyno, “to become woman.”]


Because it was only late in the fourth century that the canon of the New Testament was finally fixed as we now have it, many of the writings that are now called apocryphal were for centuries widely accepted and used by Christian churches. Hence, it would be anachronistic to exclude all of them from consideration in matters concerning early Christianity. Still, caution must be exercised in their use , for usually, to a much greater extent than most of the canonical New Testament writings, most of the apocryphal New Testament writings have very little historical basis-the childhood stories about Jesus, for example, are largely legendary fiction. However, these apocryphal writings are first-class sources for informing us about what many early Christians thought and believed and how they lived: e.g., the extremely anti-sex attitudes of the apocryphal Acts of various apostles-which far exceed any sexual asceticism of the New Testament.

Much, though by no means all, of the Christian writing of these early centuries came under the influence of the broad cultural movement called Gnosticism. Gnosticism, as its name indicated (gnosis -knowledge), taught that salvation was to be attained by means of a secret knowledge lying below the surface of texts, symbols, and events. Thus, in the third-century Gnostic Gospel of Philip it is written: “People do not perceive what is correct but they perceive what is incorrect, unless they have come to know what is correct.” (Nag Hammadi Library, p. 13 3.)

Further, Gnosticism tended to be strongly dualistic in its conception of reality (all reality is ultimately made up of two elements: matter, which is evil, and spirit, which is good). In line with that conception it also tended to be very ascetical and anti-sex. But that did not ipso facto mean it was totally anti-woman, as will be seen below when the various apocryphal Acts of apostles are discussed (see §314). Also, partly because of its dualism the masculine and feminine elements were sometimes projected into its conceptualizations of the divinity. Of course there were also other causes of such male-female conceptualizations (e.g., the God and Goddess traditions), and similarly, not every feminine-masculine description of the divinity was necessarily a reflection of Gnosticism. With such cautions in mind we can proceed.

§63. The Triune Thought of God

The Trimorphic Protennoia (the “Three-Form First Thought”) is a late second-century Christian (or Christianized) Gnostic tractate about God that in some respects resembles the Hebraic-Judaic traditions about Wisdom (Hokmah-Sophia). Paradoxically the First Thought, Protennoia, is at once (1) “The first born of all who exist” and also (2) the one who “exists before the All”; in fact, (3) she “is” the All. The first is reminiscent of Ben Sira 24:9: “From eternity, in the beginning, he created me [Hokmah], and for eternity I shall remain.” The second is similar to Prov 8:23: “From everlasting I [Hokmah] was firmly set, from the beginning, before earth came into being.” The third is like, but goes beyond, Wisdom 7:25-26: “She [Sophia] is a breath of the power of God, pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty ... image of his goodness.” In this “going beyond,” it is analogous to John’s utilizing of the Hokmah-Sophia theme and substituting in it the Logos in a way that also continues and “goes beyond” the previous Wisdom tradition (see §59): “In the beginning was the Word [Logos]: The Word was with God and the Word was God.... The Word was the true light that enlightens every human being [anthropon]; and he was coming into the world (Jn 1: 1, 9). In the Trimorphic Protennoia, however, the divine “comes the second time in the likeness of a female.”

I am Protennoia, the Thought that dwells in the Light. I am the movement that dwells in the All, she in whom the All takes its stand, the first-born among those who came to be, she who exists before the All. She (Protennoia) is called by three names, although she exists alone, since she is perfect. I am invisible within the Thought of the Invisible One. I am revealed in the immeasurable, ineffable things. I am intangible, dwelling in the intangible. I move in every creature.... I am the Invisible One within the All. It is I who counsel those who are bidden, since I know the All that exists in it. I am numberless beyond everyone. I am immeasurable, ineffable, yet whenever I wish, I shall reveal myself. I am the movement of the All. I exist before the All, and I am the All, since I exist before everyone....

I am a single one (fem.) since I am undefiled. I am the Mother of the Voice [which is another name for the Father!], speaking in many ways, completing the All. It is in me that knowledge dwells, the knowledge of things everlasting. It is I who speak within every creature and I was known by the All. It is I who lift up the Sound [another name for the Mother] of the Voice to the cars of those who have known me, that is, the Sons of Light.

Now I have come the second time in the likeness of a female and have spoken with them. (Trimorphic Protennoia, Nag Hammadi Library, pp. 461, 462,466)

§64. Mother, Father, Son God -I

In the same Gnostic Christian document, the Trimorphic Protennoia, God is also described as having three dimensions, Mother, Father, and Son. However, there is a certain unclarity because of a language difficulty. The document was originally composed in Greek and was subsequently translated into Coptic (Egyptian). Unfortunately the Greek is lost and the Coptic is obviously not always a precise rendering of the original, leaving us with certain unclarities. Nevertheless, it is sure that the divinity was conceived of as threefold, as Mother, Father, and Son, although it is not clear whether or which, the Father or the Mother, is prior. But perhaps such ambiguity is deliberate. In any case, the feminine, maternal dimension is there at the heart of divinity, as well as the masculine and paternal. The ancient Goddess not only in the form of Wisdom, Knowledge, or Thought (Sophia, Athena) but also as the Mater Magna is present here.

Now the Voice that originated from my Thought exists as three permanences: The Father, the Mother, the Son.... He [the Son] gave Aeons for the Father of all Aeons, who is 1, the Thought of the Father, for Protennoia, that is, Barbelo [a name often given to the feminine dimension in these Gnostic documents], the perfect Glory and the immeasurable Invisible One who is bidden. I am the Image of the Invisible Spirit and it is through me that the All took shape, and I am the Mother as well as the Light which she appointed as Virgin, she who is called Meirothea [which means “maiden Goddess”], the intangible Womb....

Then the Perfect Son revealed himself to his Aeons.... And they gave glory, saying, “He is! He is! The Son of God! The Son of God! It is he who isl (Trimorphic Protennoia, Nag Hammadi Library, pp. 463-464)

In the somewhat earlier (before A.D. 185) Gnostic Christian Apocryphon of John the three-form divinity, Father, Mother, Son, is also found. Here, however, the term “spirit” is not feminine but is connected with the Father. The feminine dimension is referred to as Mother, Pronoia (that is, “first thought”), and Barbelo (which may mean “intense radiation”). The Son is also called the Autogenes (“self-generated”) and the Christ. Here the Father definitely appears to be prior to the Mother, though she seems to be a perfect image of him and the “womb of everything.”

I am the one who is with you forever. I am the Father, I am the Mother, I am the Son.... He said to me [John], “The Monad is a monarchy with nothing above it. It is he who exists as God and Father of everything, the invisible one who is above everything, who is imperishability, existing as pure light which no eye can behold.

He is the invisible Spirit.... This is the first power which was before all of them and which came forth from his mind, that is the Pronoia of the All. Her light is the likeness of the light, the perfect power which is the image of the invisible, virginal Spirit who is perfect. The first power, the glory, Barbelo, the perfect glory in the aeons, the glory of the revelation, she glorified the virginal Spirit and praised him, because thanks to him she had come forth. This is the first thought, his image; she became the womb of everything for she is prior to them all. (Apocryphon of John, Nag Hammadi Library, pp. 99-101)

A third Gnostic Christian document, the Coptic writing called the Gospel of the Egyptians, apparently written somewhat after the above-cited Apocryphon of John, also speaks of a triune God, Father, Mother, and Son. Here the term “Father” does double duty. First it is the great silent unknown Father which is the source of the three powers, the Mother, Son, and Father [the Father being an active force, in this usage]. It should also be noted that in this second sense the Father is also referred to as androgynous (for other examples of androgyny in God, see §§17 and 66). Likewise interesting is the fact that, notwithstanding her “coming forth from the Father,” the Mother is also said to have “originated from herself.”

Three powers came forth from him; they are the Father, the Mother and the Son, from the living silence, what came forth from the Incorruptible Father. These came forth from the silence of the unknown Father.... The first ogdoad ... the androgynous Father. The second ogdoad-power, the Mother, the virginal Barbelon.... The third ogdoad-power, the Son of the silent silence, and the crown of the silent silence, and the glory of the Father, and the virtue of the Mother. (Gospel of the Egyptians, Nag Hammadi Library, p. 196)

§65. Mother, Father, Son God - II

Though Gnosticism was vigorously attacked by catholic Christianity and most of the Gnostic writings were burned, along with as many of the apocryphal writings as could be confiscated, the idea of Motherhood in a triune God either persisted or reappeared in medieval Western Christianity (as also in medieval Judaism, i.e., the Kabbala -see §46). The fourteenth-century English mystic mentioned above, Dame Julian of Norwich, spoke of the properties of Fatherhood, Motherhood, and Lordship (the latter, because it is connected to “Our Lord Jesus,” is the equivalent of the Son) in the Trinity. There is here obviously no subordination of Motherhood to the other properties of God.

I beheld the working of all the blessed Trinity. In which beholding I saw and understood these three properties: the property of Fatherhood, and the property of Motherhood, and the property of the Lordship-in one God. ... I saw and understood that the high might of the Trinity is our Father, and the deep wisdom of the Trinity is our Mother, and the great love of the Trinity is our Lord. (Dame Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love of Julian of Norwich,  tr. by James Walsh, Ch. 58)

§66. The Mother-Father God Once Again

Above in §22 the likelihood of the female and male aspects of the divinity being reflected in the ancient Hebrew names for God (Eloah, El, Elohim) was discussed, and in §43 a quotation from the Dead Sea Scrolls was cited as perhaps a further echo of this divine “androgyny.” This is of course besides all of the evidence exhibited above showing that the divine in the Judeo-Christian tradition was conceived of in feminine as well as masculine terms; but it was usually rather clearly either feminine or masculine, rather than both at the same time. Even most of the Gnostic Christian material quoted in the pages just above speaks of the Mother and the Father in the divine separately. However, there are other statements from this Gnostic and apocryphal Christian material which refer to the divine as “syzygetic” (paired), “Mother-Father,” etc., beginning with the above-cited (§64) Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians reference to “the androgynous Father.”

Then he said to me, “The Mother-Father who is rich in mercy, the holy Spirit in every way, the One who is merciful . (Apocryphon of John, Nag Hammadi Library, p. 114)

I am the Voice [synonym for the Father] that appeared through my Thought, for I am “He who is syzygetic,” since I am called “the Thought of the Invisible One.” Since I am called “the Unchanging Sound [synonym

for the Mother],” I am called “She who is syzygetic.”...I am androgynous. I am both Mother and Father since I [make love] with myself. I [make love] with myself and with those who love me, and it is through me alone that the All stands firm. I am the Womb that gives shape to the All by giving birth to the Light that shines in splendor. I am the Aeon to come. I am the fulfillment of the All, that is, Meirothea, the glory of the Mother. (Trimorphic Protennoia, Nag Hammadi Library, pp. 465-467)

Another second-century Gnostic Christian document, also originally written in Greek but this time available only in a Syriac translation, the Odes of Solomon, also speaks of the divinity in androgynous terms. However, they are different from those previously cited. First, the Odes speak not of Father, Mother, and Son, but of the customary Christian Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Second, the androgyny appears when the Father is said to have milk-filled breasts!

A cup of milk was offered to me;

And I drank it in the sweetness of the delight of the Lord.

The Son is the cup.

And He who is milked is the Father;

And He who milked Him is the Holy Spirit.

Because His breasts were full;

And it was not desirable that His milk should be spilt to no purpose.

And the Holy Spirit opened His [literally Her] bosom

And mingled the milk of the two breasts of the Father,

And gave the mixture to the world without their knowing:

And they who take it are in the fullness of the right hand.

(J. R. Harris and A. Mingana, eds., The Odes and Psalms of Solomon,  Vol. 2, pp.  298f.--19:1-51; London,1920)

III. Summary: Feminine Imagery of God

§67. Feminine and Masculine Divine Personifications Co-Identified

Brief summary note should be taken here of the extraordinary contact, and even conflation, in the orthodox Jewish and Christian writings, to say nothing of those outside the mainline traditions, of several of the divine personifications that have been discussed. Mention has already been made of the identification between Hokmah and Ruach (both feminine), Hokmah and Torah (both feminine), and Hokmah-Sophia and Logos (feminine and masculine). In addition, there is also an identification between God’s Word (Dabar in Hebrew and Logos in Greek, both masculine) and Torah (feminine). This happens in the Hebrew Bible, e.g., in Ps 119, vs. 9, 16, 17, 25, 28, 42, 43, 49, 6 5, 74, 89. God’s Word is praised in parallel with, and identified with, God’s Law in vs. 1, 18, 29, 34, 44, 51, 53, 55, 57, 61, 70, 72, 77, 85 (Dabar and Torah and variants are used).

In the Christian tradition there is also a kind of identification that takes place between Logos and Torah. Jesus the Christ is said to be God’s Logos; as of old one approached and knew God through the Torah, now such an approach and knowledge is made through the living Logos, Jesus Christ: “Indeed, from his fulness we have, all of us, received-yes, grace in return for grace, since, though the Law [Torah] was given through Moses, grace and truth have come through Jesus Christ [the logos theou]. No one has ever seen God; it is the only begotten who is near the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (Jn 1:16-18). Indeed, even though in later Christian ecumenical councils a clear distinction between the Christ (the Logos of John) and the Spirit was made, many Scripture scholars and theologians dispute whether such a distinction is biblically sustainable in view of statements like that of Paul in 2 Cor 3:17: “Now this Lord [Christ] is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. “ In any case, there is no hesitation in the Christian tradition about identifying the masculine Word of God, Logos, and Christ, with the feminine divine personifications of Hokmah, Torah, and Ruach.

Besides these co-identifications in the strictly orthodox Jewish and Christian writings, there are the further manifold conflations of the Mother, Father, Son, Spirit, Light, Voice, Thought (or Logos) cited above from the Gnostic Christian writings. Furthermore, writing of the Jew Philo, Samuel Sandmel said:

Philo’s Logos derives from an earlier encounter of Jewish and Greek ideas, wherein the content of similar terms and ideas resulted in a blending of them. Torah equaled Hokmah which equaled Sophia (“Wisdom”) which equaled Logos (“rationality”). The Divine Logos was a synthesis of these earlier ideas, and were brought together into an amalgam. (Samuel Sandmel, Judaism and Christian Beginnings, p. 298; Oxford University Press, 1978)

Something similar was said of Saadia, one of the important kabbalists, by Gershom Scholem:

According to him [Saadia], God, who remains infinite and unknown also in the role of Creator, has produced the glory as “a created light, the first of all creations.” This Kavod is “the great radiance called Shekhinah” and it is also identical with the ruach ha-kodesh, the “holy spirit,” out of whom there speaks the Voice and Word of God. (Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, P. 110)






In Hebrew literature there are at least two traditions about the nature of woman. One, in attempting to describe what the original state of humanity-before the Fall-must have been like, is positive and depicts woman as the equal of man, if indeed not the perfection of humanity. The second tradition, attempting initially to explain the actual subordinate condition of women in society-after the Fall-is negative and describes woman as inferior to man because of disobedience.

§68. God Created Humanity: Genesis 1

There are two accounts of the creation of humanity in the book of Genesis. The later account, composed by the Priestly writer1, is completely egalitarian in its description of human creation. God is described as creating humanity immediately in its dual sexual form; there is no priority or inferiority expressed or implied. It should also be noted that the word used for “man,” as it is often translated in English, is ha adam, a generic Hebrew term for humanity, literally “the human”; it is a mistake to translate it in Gen I to 2:22 either, as man in the male sense or as a proper name, Adam (until Gen’ 4:2 5 the definite article ha is almost always used with adam, precluding the possibility of its being a proper name; in 4:2 5 it becomes a proper name, Adam, without the ha). Moreover, it is clearly a collective noun in Gen I to 2:22, as can be seen in the plural “let them be masters” (Gen 1:26).

God said, “Let us make humanity in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves, and let them be masters of the fish of the sea.”. . . God created humanity in the image of himself, in the image of God be created it, male and female he created them. (Gen 1:26-27)

§69. God Created Humanity: Genesis 2

The much older Yahwist writer of Genesis 2 described the same creation of humanity with what became the story of “Adam and Eve.” Though interpreted as reflecting man’s superiority over woman by apocryphal Jewish writers a century or two before the time of Jesus (see The Books of Adam and Eve, R. H. Charles, ed., The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament Vol. 2, pp. 123-154; Oxford University Press, 1913), Paul (1 Cor 11:7-9-see §332), and the deutero-Pauline writer (I Tim 2:13-see §334), this late understanding does not reflect the original meaning of the text.

Moreover, such a claim of male superiority made because the male was later, mistakenly, thought to have been created first is based on the assumption that the superior was created first. But not only is that exactly the reverse of what is seen to be reality in modern evolutionary understanding-the higher beings are the last to arise-it is also the reverse of the Genesis I story of creation: first God created the heavens and earth, then plants, fish, birds, land animals, and only finally-as a high point, not a low point-humanity. From the perspective of the Priestly writer of Genesis 1, and modern evolutionary thought, the claim that woman was created after man would indicate that she was superior to him. But of course the Priestly writer did not claim woman was created after man, but rather “God created humanity . . . male and female he created them”; the Priestly writer was affirming male and female equality.

Actually the Yahwist writer of Genesis 2 likewise does not speak of the prior creation of male humanity. Rather, he speaks of the creation of humanity, undifferentiated:

Yahweh God fashioned humanity* of dust from the earth.** (Gen 2:7

*[ha adam-note the definite article ha, “the”-here is still not a personal name, but a collective noun.

**[ha adamah (feminine!); a Hebrew play on words meaning that humanity, ha adam, is an earth (ha adamah) creature.]

§70. Ishshah and Ish - I

The Yahwist writer, in his story fashion, expresses the idea that it was not good for humanity to be singular, that to be fully human there must be relationships, dialogue between two equals, which function the lesser animals cannot fulfill. The Yahwist has God creating the birds and animals after humanity, but they are unable to be an adequate partner to humanity-hence the creation of the sexes, equal though not identical, out of the undifferentiated humanity. The Yahwist uses the word ha adam, “the human,” or “humanity,” all the way to verse 23, where he refers to woman with the word ishshah and to the male with the word ish, making a definite play on words: “This is to be called wo-man (ishshah), for this was taken from man (ish).“ Up to that point it is very clear that the creature out of which woman is fashioned is ha adam, generic, undifferentiated humanity. But as soon as the Yahwist focuses on the play on words and presents his folk etymology of the Hebrew word for woman, ishshah, as “taken from ish “ (because they sound similar) the possibility of confusion arises; the unwarranted conclusion that woman was “taken from” the male, i.e., that the female was formed from the rib of the male rather than from undifferentiated humanity, is at band. But the writer’s main intent would seem to be that the word wo-man (ishshah) is taken from the word man (ish; the word ishshah appears-though modern grammarians tell us it is not really so-basically to be the word ish with the feminine suffix ah added to it. Luther, e.g., translated ishshah as Männin, a grammatically feminized form of Mann, meaning man the male; for ha adam he used the generic collective Mensch. Paul in I Cor 11:7-9 and the deutero-Pauline writer in I Tim 2:13 missed this careful, and important, distinction).

Yahweh God said, “It is not good that humanity (ha adam) should be singular (lebadda). I will make for it a partner.” So from the soil Yahweh God fashioned all the wild beasts and all the birds of heaven. These he brought to humanity (ha adam) to see what it would call them; each one was to bear the name humanity (ha adam) would give it. Humanity (ha adam) gave names to all the cattle, all the birds of heaven and all the wild beasts. But no partner suitable for humanity (ha adam) was found for it. So Yahweh God made humanity (ha adam) fall into a deep sleep.... Yahweh God built the rib he had taken from humanity (ha adam) into a woman (ishshah) and presented her to humanity (ha adam). Humanity (ha adam) exclaimed:

“This at last is bone from my bones,

and flesh from my flesh!

This is to be called wo-man (ishshah),

for this was taken from man (ish).”

That is why a man (ish) leaves his father and mother and joins himself to his wife, and they become one body. (Gen 2:18-24)

*[Partner, ezer neged, is usually translated “helpmate,” but the Hebrew word ezer implies no inferiority, as for example in Ps 33:20; 115:9-11; 121:2; 124:8; 146:5-6; Ex 18:4; and Deut 33:7, 26, 29, where God is an ezer to humanity; further, the word neged adjoining ezer indicates equality, meaning literally “alongside of,” as is pointed out by E. A. Speiser, Genesis, The Anchor Bible p. 17; Doubleday & Co., 1964].

§71. Ishshah and Ish - II

Phyllis Trible has an extremely penetrating analysis of the above key passage (v. 23) which deals with the parallel between ish/ishshah and ha adam/ha adamah:

As ishshah is taken from ish, so ha adam is taken from ha adamah (cf. 2:7). Yet ha adam is never portrayed as subordinate to the earth. On the contrary, the creature is given power over the earth so that what is taken from becomes superior to. By strict analogy, then, the line “this shall be called ishshah because from ish was taken this” would mean not the subordination of the woman to the man but rather her superiority to him.

Yet the practice of determining the nuances of a given word from its usages elsewhere in a text may mislead as well as enlighten. The meanings gleaned from such a procedure must fit the particular context in which the word being studied appears. Since the context for this statement concerning ishshah and ish is the preceding line, “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” the connotation of woman’s superiority is inappropriate. The relationship of this couple is one of mutuality and equality, not one of female superiority and certainly not one of female subordination. Nowhere in this entire story is subordination a connotation of the phrase “taken from.” Finally, woman is not derived from man, even as the earth creature is not derived from the earth. For both of them life originates with God. Dust of the earth and rib of the earth creature are but raw materials for God’s creative activity. Truly, neither woman nor man is an autonomous creature; both owe their origin to divine mystery. (Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, pp. 100f.)

§72. Humanity and the Fall

After this point, however, the Yahwist becomes ambivalent, for his use of ha adam shifts and it now clearly means the male. He states: “and the man (ha adam) and his wife (ishshah) were not ashamed” (Gen 2:2 5); “and the man (ha adam) and his wife (ishshah) bid themselves” (3:8); “and the man (ha adam) said, ‘the woman (ishshah) you gave me’ “ (3:12); “and he said to the man (l’adam, “to the”-with the elision of the preposition the article ha disappears), ‘Because you listened to the voice of your wife (ishshah)...’” (3:17); “and Yahweh God made clothes for the man (l’adam) and his wife (ishshah) ... (3:21). Then from Gen 4:25 onward the article (ha) is not used before adam and the word often, though not always (cf. Gen 5:1-2), becomes a proper name, Adam. But in 3:16 the Yahwist did not use any form of adam, but rather ish, male: “and your desire will be for your man (ish).”

However, lest one be tempted to think that, despite the above earlier documentation, this later use of ha adam by the Yahwist as meaning “the man” was also intended in the earlier section, Gen 2:7-24, the following should also be recalled: in 3:3 the woman says “God said, ‘You (plural) shall not eat the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden and you shall not touch it lest perhaps you shall die.’” But there is only one previous mention of this command and it is not given to the man and woman after the recorded creation of the woman (and man) in Gen 2:22, but rather to undifferentiated humanity, ha adam, in 2:16: “And Yahweh Cod commanded humanity (ha adam), saying, ‘You may eat from every tree in the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, of which you must not eat, for on the day you eat from it you will surely die.’ “ Thus for the Yahwist the woman, ishshah, was included in undifferentiated humanity, ha adam.

§73. Woman and Man After the Fall

Chapter 3 of Genesis is the story of the Fall. It is the Yahwist’s (or rather his sources’) attempt to account for the misery he sees in the world about him; God is affirmed to be a beneficent creator (ch. 2), and therefore disorder in the world must be caused by someone other than God-that someone is ha adam. The Yahwist does not imply that the domination of woman by man is according to the nature of things as God created them. On the contrary, God created woman and man equal (ch. 2); it is because of disobedience that all nature becomes disordered: e.g., the animals and plants are no longer docile before the man, the woman’s body in childbirth is no longer completely under her control, woman and man are no longer coordinate, but super- and sub-ordinate to one another-all because the anchor of order, humanity’s obedience to God, was lost.

It should also be noted that God curses the serpent and the earth, but does not curse either the woman or the man. They both, however, receive a punishment, which is not administered in a command, e.g., “you must bear your children in pain,” or “you must earn your bread by the sweat of your face.” Rather, it is the simple future tense of the verbs that is used, telling the man and woman what in fact will happen in the future. All this is seen by the biblical writer as evil, resulting from sin, something that according to the order of God’s creation ought not be (that includes of course the sub-ordination of the woman to the man), but unfortunately in fact does exist. In other words, the dire words the Yahwist places on the lips of God are not prescriptive, but descriptive-humanity brought its punishment on itself.

The serpent was the most subtle of all the wild beasts that Yahweh God had made. It asked the woman, “Did God really say you were not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?” The woman answered the serpent, “We may eat the fruit of the trees in the garden. But of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden God said, ‘You must not eat it, nor touch it, under pain of death.’ “Then the serpent said to the woman, “No! You will not die! God knows in fact that on the day you eat it your eyes will be opened and You will be like gods, knowing good and evil.” The woman saw that the tree was good to eat and pleasing to the eye, and that it was desirable for the knowledge that it could give. So she took some of its fruit and ate it. She gave some also to her husband who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they realized that they were naked. So they sewed fig-leaves together to make themselves loin-cloths.

The man and his wife heard the sound of Yahweh God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they bid from Yahweh God among the trees of the garden. But Yahweh God called to the man. “Where are you?” he asked. “I heard the sound of you in the garden”; he replied, “I was afraid because I was naked, so I bid.” “Who told you that you were naked?” he asked. “Have you been eating of the tree I forbade you to eat?” The man replied, “It was the woman you put with me; she gave me the fruit, and I ate it.” Then Yahweh God asked the woman, “What is this you have done?” The woman replied, “The serpent tempted me and I ate.”

Then Yahweh God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, be accursed beyond all cattle, all wild beasts. You shall crawl on your belly and eat dust every day of your life. I will make you enemies of each other: you and the woman, your offspring and her offspring. It will crush your head and you will strike its heel.”

To the woman he said: “I will multiply your pains in childbearing, you shall give birth to your children in pain. Your yearning shall be for your husband, yet he will lord it over you.”

To the man he said, “Because you listened to the voice of your wife and ate from the tree of which I had forbidden you to eat, accursed be the soil because of you. With suffering shall you get your food from it every day of your life. It shall yield you brambles and thistles, and you shall eat wild plants. With sweat on your brow shall you eat your bread, until you return to the soil, as you were taken from it. For dust you are and to dust you shall return.’

The man named his wife “Eve” because she was the mother of all those who live. Yahweh God made clothes out of skins for the man and his wife, and they put them on. Then Yahweh God said, “See, humanity (ha adam)* has become like one of us, with its knowledge of good and evil. It must not be allowed to stretch its hand out next and pick from the tree of life also, and eat some and live for ever.” So Yahweh God expelled it from the garden of Eden, to till the soil from which it had been taken. He banished humanity (ha adam),* and in front of the garden of Eden be posted the cherubs, and the flame of a flashing sword, to guard the way to the tree of life. (Genesis 3)

*[Obviously here ha adam means not the man but humanity; otherwise not the woman but just the man would have been driven from the garden of Eden. Luther perceived this better than most modern translators, for be rendered ha adam here with the plural of the sexless generic term for human beings: die Menschen.]

§74. The Shifting Meanings of ha adam

As noted above, the term ha adam is used in a collective sense in Genesis I through 2:22, referring to humanity, as yet undifferentiated sexually. From there to Gen 3:22, ha adam refers to the man as distinct from ishshah, for the undifferentiated humanity no longer exists. But in Gen 3:22-24, as seen just above, ha adam is again meant collectively: humanity is driven out of the Garden of Eden. As Phyllis Trible makes clear,

Ha adam now becomes a generic term that keeps the man visible and renders the woman invisible (3:22-24).... The emphasis upon the man in the design of the story shows his rule over the woman in the aftermath of disobedience. What God described to the woman as a consequence of transgression the story not only reports but actually embodies. Generic ha adam has subsumed ishshah.... As a central word in this dissonant ring composition, ha adam is used exclusively for humanity at the beginning and end of the story, yet with two very different meanings: at first, the sexually undifferentiated earth creatures (2:7); at last, the generic man who renders the woman invisible (3:24). (Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, pp. 134-137)

§75. Eve the Seducer

One of the traditional interpretations of the Fall is to see in it proof of woman’s inferiority to man; the “proof” is that the serpent, the spirit of evil, realized that the man was too strong to overcome and so he first approached the woman, because she was weaker, less intelligent. In the second century A.D., Tertullian, the Latin Christian church father from North Africa, expressed the argument vigorously:

The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives on even in our times and so it is necessary that the guilt should live on, also. You are the one who plucked the fruit of the forbidden tree, you are the first who deserted the divine law; you are the one who persuaded him whom the Devil was not strong enough to attack. All too easily you destroyed the image of God, man. (Tertullian [A.D. 160-225], De cultu feminarum, The Fathers of the Church, Vol. 40, p. 118; Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1959)

In the fourth century a Greek church father from Palestine, Epiphanius, argued in a similar manner about Eve and women in general: The devil, completely unable to direct the thoughts of the male, who gets his strength from the knowledge of God, from the truth, turned to woman-that is, to the ignorance of humanity-and seduced those who were in ignorance, people without firm ideas that is, the feminine in humanity. (See Migne, Patrologia Graeca, Vol. 41, col. 643.) The eighth-century Greek church father John Damascene presented similar ideas. (See Migne, Patrologia Graeca, vol. 104, col. 706.) Lest one think this line of argument is passé, it should be noted that in 1952 a Christian theologian argued as follows:

The devil tempted Eve, not Adam, because she-although both possessed the gift of integritas-could fall more easily than the man; for she-prescinding from the more abundant grace which Adam doubtless was given-was more easily led astray and weaker in resistance. (I. F. Sagües, Sacrae Theologiae Summa, Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, Vol. 2, p. 887; Madrid, 1952)

§76. Female Superiority

The puzzling, even astounding, thing about this pervasive and persistent line of thought is the total unawareness in its advocates of the self-destructive-to say nothing of the self-contradictory- implications embedded in it. The basic assumption is that one intelligence can lead another astray only when it is superior to it (apparently the serpent/devil was not superior to the man, but was superior to the woman). But that leads to the self-destructive conclusion that, since the woman led the man astray, the woman is superior to the man! An unavoidable, though undesired, conclusion. Clearly the” must be a better way to understand the relationship between the woman and the man in the story of the Fall. A contemporary Christian theologian provides a persuasive, feminist one:

The serpent speaks to the woman. Why to the woman and not the man? The simplest answer is that we do not know.... But the silence of the text stimulates speculations, many of which only confirm the patriarchal mentality that conceived them. Let a female speculate. If the, serpent is “more Subtle” than its fellow creatures, the woman is more appealing than her husband. Throughout the myth she is the more intelligent one, the more aggressive one and the one with greater sensibilities.... The initiative and the decision are hers alone. She seeks neither her husband’s advice nor his permission. She acts independently. By contrast the man is a silent and bland recipient: “She also gave some to her husband and he ate.” ... His one act is belly-oriented, and it is an act of quiescence, not of initiative. The man is not dominant; he is not aggressive; he is not a decision-maker.... He follows his wife without question or comment, thereby denying his own individuality. If the woman be intelligent, sensitive, and ingenious, the man is passive, brutish, and inept. These character portrayals are truly extraordinary in a culture dominated by men. I stress this contrast not to promote female chauvinism but to understand patriarchal interpretations alien to the text. (Phyllis Trible, “Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 41, No. 1, March 1973, p. 40)

In fact, Professor Trible’s analysis probably is more likely correct than she suggests. As was discussed above (see §1), the worship of the deity as Goddess preceded biblical religion by thousands of years and was the target of the most intense hostility by the patriarchal father-God worshipers loyal to Yahweh. What is pertinent to note here is that a very prominent symbol of the Goddess was the Serpent (see, e.g., Gimbutas, Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe, pp. 93-101); that the Serpent Goddess was then said to be the source of wisdom (Hokmah-see p. 36) and knowledge; and that priestesses were the mediators of the Goddess, the source of wisdom (Hokmah). Under this also lay the sociological fact that earlier Goddess-worshiping societies were also possibly matriarchal, that is, ruled by women. They were certainly matrilineal (see James, Cult of the Mother Goddess, p. 228)-that is, property was inherited through the woman’s line; to get at power and property men would have to change the theology of a supreme Goddess as the source of real wisdom [Hokmah], and women as her mediators.

An intention of the Yahwist writer that suggests itself here is that he wishes to show that though the Goddess, in her immediately recognizable symbolic form of the serpent, claims to lead humanity to true knowledge and participation in divine life through the mediation of women-here through “the woman”-such a claim is spurious and leads in fact to death; therefore, man should not follow woman in seeking religious knowledge, i.e., he should forsake the ministrations of the priestesses of the Goddess; moreover, priestesses must forsake the precincts of the Goddess temple where sacred sex was performed as a “holy” act (the priestesses who performed this sacred sex were called qedeshot in the Hebrew Bible, meaning literally “holy women”) and limit their sexual activity to a single husband: “Your desire shall be for your husband.”

This latter aspect was patently an attempt to place property in the bands of the man, instead of the woman as it had earlier been. If it had been simply a concern to limit sex to between a single husband and wife, the husband would also have been so constrained; but in the Yahwist’s society the man was not limited to one woman. With the woman limited sexually to one man it was possible to know who the man’s offspring was and thus have patrilineal inheritance. But if the Hebrew woman could, like the Hebrew man, have more than one spouse, only the mother could be known for certain, and hence matrilineal inheritance would have remained the only choice. Thus did theology serve to reflect, justify, and confirm the “new” patriarchal, patrilineal social structure.

§77. Mutuality Repeated: Genesis 5

Chapter 5 of Genesis is the transition from the story of prehistory to “history,” but only the first two verses are pertinent. The chapter was composed by the Priestly writer, who wishes to provide a genealogical link between the first human beings and subsequent historical developments and does so by offering a “roll of humanity’s descendants.” He basically repeats his statement of ch. I about God creating humanity in masculine and feminine form. There is a difficulty about translating P’s use of the word adam. In ch. 1, P used the word twice, in verses 26 and 27, and in both instances the word had the same meaning, “humanity,” even though in one instance the article was used and in one not: “Let us make humanity (adam) in our own image.... And God created humanity (ha adam) in the image of himself, in the image of God be created it, male and female be created them.” The presence of the definite article ha excludes the possibility that the word adam could be meant as a personal name. But its absence does not necessitate understanding the word as a personal name; it merely makes it possible, depending on the context. In ch. 5 the Priestly writer used adam without the article, so that only the context can give the correct meaning. In any case, the beginning of ch. 5 reiterates the egalitarian creation of women and men, in almost exactly the same words used in chapter 1.

This is the roll of humanity’s (adam) descendants:

On the day God created humanity (adam) he made it in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them. He blessed them and gave them the name “Humanity” (adam) on the day he created them. (Gen 5:1-2)


§78. Women Prophets

There are a variety of characteristics that are attributable to prophets, but basically a prophet is one through whom God speaks. The Hebrew word for prophet is nabi, and its feminine form is nebiah. It is used to refer to four specific women in the Hebrew Bible. The one other time the word nebiah is used is in Is 8:3, where it apparently refers to the prophet’s wife, although some scholars suggest it might mean “sacred prostitute.”

a. Daughters Prophesy

Perhaps the latest reference in the Hebrew Bible to women prophesying occurs in the writings of the probably postexilic prophet Joel. He does not hesitate to use a form of the verb “to prophesy” (nb’) in referring to women:

After this I will pour out my spirit on everyone. Your sons and your daughters will prophesy (nibe’u). (Joel 2:28)

b. Miriam the Prophet

We are told in Num 26:59 and I Chron 5:29 that Miriam, Moses, and Aaron were siblings. Since they were the only ones mentioned, Miriam is presumed to be the sister of Moses referred to in the story of Ex 24-9, who offered to find a Hebrew wet nurse for the Pharaoh’s daughter’s foundling boy-Moses. Miriam was called by the oldest writer of the Bible (J) a woman prophet (nebiah) when she sang a victory praise of Yahweh upon the Israelites’ escape from Pharaoh’s army:

Miriam the prophet (nebiah), Aaron’s sister, took up a timbrel, and all the women followed her with timbrels, dancing. And Miriam led them in the refrain: “Sing of Yahweh: he has covered himself in glory, horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.” (Ex 15:20-21)

That Miriam was a prophet, that is, one through whom God spoke, was also clearly implied in another passage:

Miriam and Aaron too spoke against Moses.... They said: “Has Yahweh spoken to Moses only? Has he not spoken to us too?” (Num 12:1-2)

The prophet Micah, who lived in the eighth century B.C.E., was apparently recipient of an ancient tradition that gave Miriam a very significant leadership role in early Israelite history-an independent prominence which some Scripture scholars believe was later downgraded partly in order to raise Moses even higher-could it also have been because women prophets and religious leaders were associated with the priestesses of the Goddess? At any rate, Micah refers to Miriam and Moses and Aaron on a par:

The Lord says, “My people, what have I done to you? How have I been a burden to you? Answer me. I brought you out of Egypt, I rescued you from slavery; I sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to lead you.” (Mic 6:3-4)

The story of Miriam’s rebuke (Num. 12:1-16) is somewhat confusing and unbalanced, again raising the question of whether it was designed, or redesigned, to downgrade Miriam vis-à-vis Moses and Aaron. The first element of confusion is that both Miriam and Aaron (with Miriam in the lead) “spoke against” Moses in connection with the Cushite woman he had married (Num 12: 1), but what then followed had apparently nothing at all to do with the Cushite woman. Rather, it centered on Miriam’s and Aaron’s claim also to be leaders, prophets, of the Israelites along with Moses. Conceivably a dispute over the marrying of a foreigner might have precipitated a power confrontation, but that is not clear from the Scriptures. What is clear is that Miriam, a woman, claimed leadership, prophecy, speaking for God, and was put down.

The second problematic element in this story is that although both Miriam and Aaron jointly, equally, challenged Moses’ sole leadership, only Miriam was punished-and most severely! She was made a leper, someone who would contaminate others who came into contact with her. The immediate thought is that the resultant isolation of the challengers would keep the contagion of rebellion against the patriarchal Moses from spreading. But why is only the woman “struck with leprosy” and therefore isolated? Was the fear like that of King Ahasuerus in the Book of Esther, who was afraid Queen Vashti’s disobedience might “soon become known to all the women and encourage them in a contemptuous attitude towards their husbands”? (Esth 1:17). Was that somehow connected with the relatively high status women had in the Egypt from which the Israelites were escaping, and with the priestesses there who served the powerful Goddess? Some scholars argue that Miriam was one of three independent leaders of the Hebrews escaping from Egypt and that it was only in the later retelling of the story that Miriam is made into Moses’ and Aaron’s sister and made inferior to Moses.

e. Dehorah, Prophet and Judge

As far as one can date the difficult material of the Book of judges, Deborah is said to have lived perhaps in the twelfth century B.C.E., that is, before the establishment of the Kingdom of Israel under Saul, David, and Solomon. Deborah is called a prophet, nebiah. She was a spokesperson for Yahweh:

At this time Deborah was judge in Israel, a prophet (nebiah).... She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali. She said to him, “This is the order of Yahweh, the God of Israel: March to Mount Tabor.” (Judg 4:4, 6)

As already noted, Deborah was also called a judge, that is, one who dispenses justice and is in a special way an instrument for God’s justice. In the former role she exercised the then highest role of potential leadership in Israel:

At this time Deborah was judge in Israel, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth. She used to sit under Deborah’s Palm between Ramah and Bethel in the highlands of Ephraim, and the Israelites would come to her to have their disputes decided. (Judg 4:4-6)

[It is interesting to note that as late as the eighth century B.C.E. there are records that women served as judges and magistrates outside of Israel, in Nimrud in northern Mesopotamia-see Stone, When God Was a Woman, p. 44.]

In the latter role, as a special instrument of God’s justice, Deborah exercised even more decisive leadership, for when Israel was literally oppressed she called forth the men and the will to fight for freedom. The Israelite general said he would fight only if she led the way, which she did. Deborah gave the command to attack, and victory was Israel’s. Afterward:

The land enjoyed rest for forty years. (Judg 5:31)

In what is perhaps the oldest Hebrew literary composition, the Song of Deborah (Judg 5:1-31), Deborah and Barak sang-like Moses and Miriam and so many of the “singing women” and “singing men” of Hebraic culture-of Yahweh’s victory:

They sang a song that day, Deborah and Barak.... “Dead, dead were Israel’s villages until you rose up, O Deborah, you rose up, a mother in Israel.... Awake, awake, Deborah! Awake, awake, declaim a song! Take heart, arise Barak, capture your captors, son of Abinoam! Then Israel marched down to the gates; Yahweh’s people, like heroes, marched down to fight for him.... So perish all your enemies, Yahweh! And let those who love you be like sun when he arises in all his strength!” (Judg 5:1, 7, 12, 13, 31)

d. Huldah the Prophet

The third woman given the title of prophet, nebiah, was Huldah during the reign of Josiah the reforming Yahwist king in the latter part of the seventh century B.C.E. It is the only time she appears in the Bible, but that appearance is quite extraordinary. Josiah was embarked on a religious reform, in the midst of which Hilkiah, the high priest at the Jerusalem Temple, said he had discovered the book of the law of Yahweh-presumably an early form of the present book of Deuteronomy. The book was presented to the pious king, who was deeply impressed by the book and also deeply distressed that its prescriptions were not being lived up to-so much so that he tore his garments, sent for his chief advisers and the high priest and said, “Go and consult Yahweh, on behalf of me and the people....” The extraordinary thing, from one point of view, is that they then went to a woman prophet! It is extraordinary in view of the long-standing, deep hostility between the devotees of Yahweh and the devotees of the Goddess, whether under the name of Asherah, Astarte, or Anath. For example, in 2 Kings 23, where the religious reforms of King Josiah are described, the destruction of shrines to Asherah or Astarte is mentioned specifically six times in verses 4 to 15 (vs. 4, 6, 7, 13, 14, 15). On the other hand, perhaps because Goddess worship was so pervasive and the prominent religious role women naturally played in it so customary, the obvious presumption that Josiah, Hilkiah, and the other Yahwists clearly held about a woman being able to be the deity’s, even Yahweh’s, spokesperson was not surprising.

Huldah was approached by the king’s emissaries in standard fashion, and she responded in the standard prophetic manner, that is, she began with a phrase like: “Thus says Yahweh.” She issued dire warnings for evildoings:

Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam, Aebbor, Shaphan and Asiah went to Huldah the prophet (nebiah).... She replied, “Yahweh, the God of Israel, says this, ‘To the man who sent you to me say this: Yahweh says this: ... And you are to say to the king of Judah who sent you to consult Yahweh: Yahweh, the God of Israel, says this: ... It is Yahweh who speaks.”’ They took this answer to the king. (2 Kings 22:14-20)

e. Huldah the Founder of Biblical Studies

One scholar has noted that at the beginning of the crucial judgment about which books are to be accepted into the canon of the Bible we find a woman, Huldah.

Josiah as king and head of the Jewish people accepted Huldah’s evaluation of the scroll as the authentic word of Yahweh and entered into a covenant with Yahweh to follow all the commandments and decrees in the scroll. This marks the first time any of the Hebrew scriptures were officially recognized as authentic. Josiah’s acknowledgment of the Book of the Law, then, represents the first beginnings of our biblical canon. And the authority to pass judgement on this initial entry into the canon was given to a woman. At the beginning of the Bible we find Huldah; in her we discover the first scripture authority, the founder of biblical studies. (Arlene Swidler, “In Search of Huldah,” The Bible Today, November 1978, p. 1783)

f. Noadiah a False Woman Prophet

The seventh-century, preexilic narrative about Huldah is the last reference in the Hebrew Bible about a woman prophet (nebiah), save one (and the more general reference of Joel 2:28, discussed above): an extremely brief reference to Noadiah (whose name, interestingly, means “Yah(weh) assembles”), who is entitled a prophet (nebiah), but one who apparently improperly tried to frighten the restorer of Jerusalem, Nehemiah. If women can be prophets, they presumably, like men, can also be false prophets. The Scripture simply says:

Remember Tobiah, my God, for what he has done; and Noadiah the prophet (nebiah), and the other prophets who tried to frighten me. (Neh 6:14)

§79. The Wise Women of Tekoa and Abel

As seen above, the Hebrew word for wisdom is hokmah. With the same consonants but different vowel pointing (Hebrew is written with only consonants; the vowels-by “pointing”-were added to the biblical text only many centuries later by Hebrew grammarians, the Massoretes) the word becomes hakamah, a wise woman.

There are two incidents in the Hebrew Bible which center on a hakamah, both in the Second Book of Samuel (2 Sam 14:2-20; 20:16-22). In the first incident King David’s general Joab sends for the hakamah from Tekoa, some eleven miles from Jerusalem, so that she might act as an intermediary in the bringing back of David’s son Absalom from exile. Though she was carefully briefed by Joab, she successfully carried out her task with consummate skill, fully justifying the reputation she had for wisdom, hokmah.

The second incident also involves Joab and a hakamah, this one from the city of Abel of Beth-maacah. In pursuing the rebel Sheba, Joab laid siege to him in that northern city to which he had fled. Then a hakamah from the city negotiated with Joab, who said he did not want to destroy the city, but only Sheba. She persuaded the city leaders to give up the rebel and thus saved the city. Julia F. Beck, doing research at the Religion Department, Temple University, noted that from her “power of counsel in time of war, this woman appears to have wielded, at least locally, the power of a Deborah. ... Both of these wise women were obviously community leaders and spoke in the name Yahweh.” (Unpublished research paper)

§80. Hebrew Queens

Though one does not usually think of Hebrew queens, there were two such reigning queens before the Common Era, Athaliah (842-837) and Salome Alexandra (78-69), both of Judah. Athaliah seized the throne upon the death of her son, putting to death all her grandsons (save one who escaped)-a not infrequent ancient, and not so ancient, pattern of eliminating potential rivals; at the same time Jehu was murdering many scores of rivals in the northern kingdom of Israel. After seven years of rule-relatively long in the list of Hebrew rulers-she was overthrown and put to death by the Yahwist high priest (Athaliah was a devotee of the god Baal and the goddess Asherah).

Salome Alexandra was of a much more irenic nature. At the wish of her dying husband she took over the Jewish realm and ruled until her death some nine years later. Hers was a rare reign of peace and prosperity in Judea, so much so that she is often referred to as “Good Queen Alexandra.” After her death her sons fought over the crown, and Rome, in the figure of Pompey, took over the Holy Land. The last really independent Jewish ruler of the Holy Land, until 1948, was a woman.


In the earliest civilization, the Sumerian, there was a group of professional women, called naditu, probably meaning “surrendered to the deity,” who worked at the temples of the Goddess, handling its business affairs, etc.; many of them also served as scribes (see Rivkah Harris, “Naditu Women of Sipar I & II,” Journal of Cuneiform Studies, Vol. 15, 1961, pp. 117-120; Vol. 16, 1962, pp. 1-12). In fact, according to the epic of Gilgamesh a woman is the official recorder of the nether world (James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament 2d ed., p. 87; Princeton University Press, 1955). Throughout all the Babylonian periods (running from 1830 to 539 B.C.E.) women served as scribes (see Stone, When God Was a Woman, p. 44).

In the Hebrew tradition women played the role of “singing women,” that is, singers of ballads, tales, and poetry (e.g., Ex 15:20; Judg 5:1, 12)-not unlike the male troubadours and minnesingers of medieval Europe-as best exemplified in Miriam and Deborah. Dorothy Irvin (“Omnis  Analogia Claudet,” in Leonard Swidler and Arlene Swidler, eds., Women Priests: A Catholic Commentary on the Vatican Declaration, pp. 271-277; Paulist Press, 1977) notes that in the Hebrew Bible references to women as creators and transmitters of the literary culture of that period are numerous (2 Sam 19:35-36; 2 Chron 35:25; Is 23:16; Eccles 2:8; Zeph 3:14; Zech 2:10). Besides songs of the ballad type, about important legendary events mentioned above, religious songs were also part of their repertory (e.g., Ezra 2:65; Neh 7:67). It may well be, as Irvin argues, that the Song of Songs “is more likely than anything else already investigated to be women’s written contribution to the Old Testament.” She points out that the exclamations addressed in the Song of Songs to other members of the group, “0 daughters of Jerusalem,” and the references to the mother-daughter relationship-not common in the rest of the Hebrew Bible-both indicate the setting of the women’s gathering, an exclusively female group that sang, danced, and in general focused on the prospective bride and her forthcoming wedding.

The biblical book of the Song of Songs as we have it perhaps comes from the third century B.C.E., though much of the material is considerably older. It is simply love poetry of a woman and a man for each other with no particular “religious” content. Perhaps it was attributed to Solomon- who obviously was not the true author-because he had the reputation of being a great lover. Perhaps the reason it was included in the canon of sacred Scriptures was that it was interpreted allegorically, that is, as reflecting the love of Yahweh for Israel, as some rabbis supposedly argued at Jamnia around 100 C.E., although that does not tell us why it was already included in the Septuagint Greek translation of the Bible (third to second century B.C.E.). In any case, it is love poetry, a candid celebration of full human love, very much including its sensuous, sexual pleasures for both partners. It reflects an image of woman and female-male relations that is extremely positive and egalitarian. To begin with, attention focuses immediately on the woman: the book begins and closes with the woman speaking:

Your lips cover me with kisses;

your love is better than wine.

There is a fragrance about you;

the sound of your name recalls it.

No woman could keep from loving you.

Take me with you, and we’ll run away;

be my king and take me to your room.

We will be happy together,

drink deep, and lose

ourselves in love. (Song of Songs 1:2-4)

Come to me, my lover, like a gazelle,

like a young stag on the mountains where spices grow. (Song of Songs 8:14)

Furthermore, the woman has most of the dialogue by far-eighty-one verses to forty-nine for the man. (See the excellent divisions printed in the Good News Bible translation.) The woman initiates most of the action and is just as active as the man in lovemaking, if not more so. For example:

On my bed at night, I sought him whom my heart loves ... I found him. I held him and wouldn’t let him go until I took him to my mother’s house, to the room where I was born. (Song of Songs 3:1, 4)

In this female initiative in lovemaking the biblical Song of Songs is very like the much more ancient (1920 B.C.E.) Middle Eastern love poetry of Sumer. In writing on this subject anthropologist Jacquetta Hawkes remarked:

In the subsequent history of human sexual attitudes, there have been the most surprising swings between the view that women are essentially passive in lovemaking, that it is the man who demands and gets full sexual satisfaction, and the opposite opinion that woman’s appetite is insatiable, that if allowed she would drain the manhood from her lovers. It is therefore not without interest to find that among the Sumerians, the first people to make some record of sexual passion, it is the second view that seems to prevail. In the sacred marriage texts it is Inanna who utters nearly all the expressions of love, and she who confesses to having sated Dumuzi in lovemaking. Jacquetta Hawkes, The First Great Civilizations, p. 177; Alfred A. Knopf, 1973)

The poem Hawkes refers to is the Sumerian Inanna and the King:

The sun has gone to sleep, the day has passed,

As in bed you gaze lovingly upon him....

She craves it, she craves it, she craves the bed,

She craves the bed of the rejoicing heart, she craves the bed,

She craves the bed of the sweet lap, she craves the bed ...

(Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, Vol. 2, pp. 640-641)

A portion of another Sumerian love poem also portraying the woman’s initiative in lovemaking is quite like a portion of the Song of Songs with its reference to going to the woman’s mother, opening the door of her mother’s house for her lover, her lovemaking:

The priestess directed her feet to the mother who gave birth to her.... The lady directed her step, opened the door for Dumuzi. In the house she came forth to him like the light of the moon, gazed at him, rejoiced for him, embraced him. (“Courting Marriage, Honeymoon,” Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, Vol. p. 639)

On my bed, at night I sought him whom my heart loves.... I found him. I held him and wouldn’t let him go until I took him to my mother’s house, to the room where I was born.... My lover put his hand to the door, and I was thrilled that he was near. I was ready to let him come in.... I opened the door for my lover.... I would take you to my mother’s house, where you could teach me love. (Song of Songs 3:1, 4; 5:4, 6; 8:2)

Another dimension of equality between the woman and the man in the Song is the fact that both are “gainfully employed,” and at the same kind of job. They are both shepherds. The woman says to the man: “Tell me, my love, where will you lead your flock to graze?” (1:7). He says to her: “Don’t you know the place, loveliest of women? Go and follow the flock; find pasture for your goats near the tents” (1:8).

(It is possible there is here a vestige from the “sacred marriage” rite of Sumer and subsequent Middle Eastern civilizations [see above remarks by Jacquetta Hawkes] wherein the male lover is Dumuzi the shepherd, whose role in the rite was taken by the king-see Song of Songs 3:6-11, where King Solomon is brought into the imagery.)

The woman further explicitly asserts the egalitarianism of mutual love when she twice over says: “My lover is mine, and I am his” (2:16; 6:3).

Though we are quite used to love poetry written by men about the beauty of the women they love, in the Song of Songs the woman is just as eloquent about the beauty of the man she loves-again a fundamental note of egalitarianism:

Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest, so is my dearest compared to other men. I love to sit in its shadow, and its fruit is sweet to my taste. (Song of Songs 2:3)

My lover is handsome and strong; he is one in ten thousand. His face is bronzed and smooth; his hair is wavy, black as a raven. His eyes are as beautiful as doves by a flowing brook, doves washed in milk and standing by the stream. His checks are as lovely as a garden that is full of herbs and spices, His lips are like lilies, wet with liquid myrrh. His hands are well-formed, and he wears rings set with gems. His body is like smooth ivory, with sapphires set in it. His thighs are columns of alabaster set in sockets of gold. He is majestic like the Lebanon Mountains with their towering cedars. His mouth is sweet to kiss; everything about him enchants me. This is what my lover is like, women of Jerusalem. (Song of Songs 5:10-16)

The mother plays an extraordinarily important role in the Song of Songs. Is this an echo of a matriarchal, or matrilineal or matrilocal, society? Mother is referred to seven times in the Song, whereas father is not mentioned at all. The mothers of both the woman and the man are mentioned:

She is called the “darling of her mother” (6:9).

Of the man reference is made to “where your mother conceived you” (8:5).

The woman wishes the man had been her “brother nursed at my mother’s breast” (8:1).

King Solomon is said to wear the crown “with which his mother crowned him: (3:11).

The women’s actual brothers are mentioned as “my mother’s sons” (1:6).

In two places the woman takes the initiative by taking the man “into my mother’s house” (3:4; 8:2).

At the same time, one scholar notes that in view of the stress on woman’s role as wife and mother in Hebrew society, it is remarkable that the Song is not interested in these ways of identifying a woman, The Song does not tell us whether the lovers are married or not; marriage is not an issue here. Moreover, “the woman is not a mother, and there are no references to her procreative abilities or interest in childbearing” (Cheryl Exum, “Images of Women in the Bible,” Women’s Caucus-Religious Studies Newsletter, Vol. 2, No. 3, Fall 1974, p. 5).

Some of the most interesting work on the meaning of the Song of Songs has been done by Phyllis Trible, who sees the Song as, if not in intent, then at least in fact, a midrash on the Adam and Eve story, a sort of theme and variations. She concludes by saying:

In many ways, then, Song of Songs is a midrash on Genesis 2-3. By variations and reversals it creatively actualizes major motifs and themes of the primeval myth. Female and male are born to mutuality and love. They are naked without shame; they are equal without duplication. They live in gardens where nature joins in celebrating their oneness. Neither couple fits the rhetoric of a male-dominated culture. As equals they confront life and death. But the first couple lose their oneness through disobedience. Consequently, the woman’s desire becomes the man’s dominion. The second couple affirm their oneness through eroticism. Consequently, the man’s desire becomes the woman’s delight. Whatever else it may be, Canticles is a commentary on Genesis 2-3. Paradise Lost is Paradise Regained. (Trible, “Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation,” pp. 46f.)

The following passages illustrate this point:

“I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me.” (Song of Songs 7:10) “Your desire shall be for your husband, yet he will lord it over you.” (Gen 3:16)



As noted above (§5), a colony of Jews lived at Elephantine, about four hundred miles south of Cairo on the Nile, perhaps from late seventh century B.C.E. to early fourth century B.C.E. A number of letters from there dated in the fifth century B.C.E. reveal several interesting dimensions of the status of Jewish women in Elephantine that are much more liberal than what apparently obtained in Israel at the same time-the period of Nehemiah and Ezra.

§81. No Polygyny

The worship at Elephantine of the Goddess along with Yahweh is discussed elsewhere (§5). In addition, from extant marriage documents, it appears that polygamy and concubinage, which were allowed to men in Israel in the fifth century, were forbidden in Jewish Elephantine. In a marriage contract from about 441 B.C.E. the groom Ashor promised to his bride Miphtahiah:

And I shall have no right to say I have another wife besides Miphtahiah and other children than the children whom Miphtahiah shall hear me. (Cowley, Aramaic Papyri, p. 46)

A similar stipulation made in another Elephantine marriage contract from about 420 B.C.E. repeated this prohibition of polygyny:

Moreover, Anani shall not be able to take another woman beside Yehoyishma to him for marriage. If he does he has divorced her. (Kraeling, Brooklyn Papyri, p. 207)

It is especially interesting to note that in the same contract it was thought important to also forbid the wife to take another man, again under the threat of divorce. She was equally forbidden to engage in polygamy. Polyandry was so unthinkable in Palestinian Hebrew religion that its prohibition is not even mentioned. But in Egyptian Hebrew religion it is clearly quite thinkable, but along with polygyny is rejected:

But Yehoyishma shall not have power to cohabit with another man beside Anani, and if she does thus, she is divorced. (Kraeling, Brooklyn Papyri, p. 207)

§82. Hebrew Women Divorce Their Husbands

In biblical Hebrew religion and Judaism only the man can divorce his spouse, for the wife is the husband’s property, but not vice versa, In Elephantine Judaism women could divorce men on equal terms, as is demonstrated by a number of documents, mostly marriage contracts.

The oldest document, 460 B.C.E., is not a marriage contract but a property deed which includes a reference to what would happen if the wife were to divorce the husband:

If tomorrow or another day you lay out this land and then my daughter divorces you and goes away from you.... (Cowley, Aramaic Papyri, p. 27)

A marriage contract from 449 B.C.E. contains arrangements for the divorce of the husband by the wife, even though she was only another woman’s handmaiden:

If tomorrow or another day Tamut rises up and says, “I divorce my husband Anani,” a like sum shall be on her head. (Kraeling, Brooklyn Papyri, p. 143)

Eight years later in 441 B.C.E. another marriage contract was made out, with typically similar divorce stipulations for both the wife and the husband. It is interesting to note that the wife’s divorce right is mentioned first:

If tomorrow or another day Miphtahiah should stand up in the congregation and say, I divorce Ashor my husband, the price of divorce shall be on her head.... Tomorrow or another day if Ashor should stand up in the congregation and say, I divorce my wife Miphtahiah, her price shall be forfeited. (Cowley, Aramaic Papyri, p. 46)

We have another partially preserved marriage contract from 425 B.C.E. which as usual includes divorce arrangements for the wife (Cowley, Aramaic Papyri, p. 56), and likewise a very elaborate marriage contract from 420 B.C.E. wherein equal divorce rights are stated:

If tomorrow or another day Anani shall rise up ... and say: I divorce my wife Yehoyishma, she shall not be a wife to me,” the divorce money is on his head.... And if Yehoyishma divorces her husband and says to him, I divorce thee. I will not be to thee a wife,” the divorce money is on her head. (Kraeling, Brooklyn Papyri, pp. 205-207)

§83. Jewish Women of Elephantine Receive and Exchange Property

Women in Palestinian Judaism experienced a range of property restrictions, e.g., wives could almost never inherit and daughters usually could not either. (Some reserve in judgment is in order, however, since we do not have contracts and records from fifth- to second-century Palestinian Judaism comparable to Elephantine Judaism of that period.) But in Elephantine Judaism women clearly did regularly receive, bold, and exchange property and goods. In a document dated 495 B.C.E., a property contract, the names of the parties are all feminine, showing that here Jewish women could hold property in their own right and go to court about it:

On the second day of the month of Epiphi of the twenty-seventh year of King Darius, said Selua daughter of Kenaya and Yethoma her sister to Ya’a’ or daughter of Shelomim, We have given to you half the share which was granted to us by the king’s judges and Ravaka the commander, in exchange for half the share which accrued to you. (Cowley, Aramaic Papyri, p. 2)

In another document, from 447 B.C.E., we find further proof that a woman could hold property and transact business in her own name, independent of her father and husband. This document is a deed for a house which is given by Mahseiah to his daughter Mibtahiah in payment for goods she gave him. They clearly are operating as two independent buyers and sellers in the document, with no father’s permission to the daughter sought or given. In fact, we know from another document that the daughter was married at this time and consequently in Palestinian Jewish law she would have come under her husband’s control. But he is not even mentioned in this document (Cowley, Aramaic Papyri, pp. 37-41).

Still another document, from 420 B.C.E., portrays a woman receiving the deed of part of a house from her father while she was still unmarried, indicating she could operate as a property bolder in her own name (Kraeling, Brooklyn Papyri, pp. 191-197). The same is also true of “Miphtahiah daughter of Gemariah, a Jew from Yeb the fortress,” who paid a sum of money to another woman in return for her earlier support; at the end it said the scribe “wrote this deed at the direction of Miphtahiah” (Cowley, Aramaic Papyri, pp. 144-147).

§84. Women: Taxes and Military Service

Equality or near-equality for Jewish women at Elephantine meant sharing both responsibilities as well as privileges with Jewish men. Unlike their Jewish sisters in Palestine, Elephantine Jewish women had equal divorce rights with their husbands, could be parties to litigation and could take oaths, and enjoyed full equality with men in the law of property and obligations. Along with these privileges women also bore the responsibility of serving in the military units, which made up the population of Elephantine-it was a military outpost for the Persian empire while it controlled Egypt in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E. (see Reuven Yaron, Introduction to the Law of the Aramaic Papyri; Oxford University Press, 1961).

Women also shared in the tax burden, as is indicated by a list of contributors to what was apparently a temple tax. There are about 117 names on the list, 38 of them being clearly women’s, since they are referred to as “daughter of ...,” 48 men’s, and another 33 indecipherable or missing. In short, of the decipherable names, 44 percent were women’s.

It is interesting to note that not all the money here collected was dedicated to Yahu (Elephantine spelling for Yahweh). Rather, it was divided up three ways, with 126 shekels going to Yahu, 120 to Anathbethel, and 70 to Eshembethel. Yahu received slightly more than did the goddess Anath, the consort of Yahu (see §5), just as there were a few more men than women contributing. It is not at all certain who Eshembethel was, though that it was a deity appears definite. Kraeling suggests the name refers to “the consort of Bethel,” that is, of the God, presumably synonymous with Yahu; Eshem might have been the spouse-consort of Bethel (Yahu) and Anath the daughter-consort of Bethel (Yahu) (Kraeling, Brooklyn Papyri, pp. 87-91). Depending on how  the 33 indecipherable names in the list would fall out by sex, it could be that gender served as a basis for the division of the 316 shekels. But this can only be speculative, since the 117 contributors should, at the two shekels apiece mentioned in the document, have raised only 234 shekels-were there additional freewill offerings by the 117 or more names from missing pages?

In any case, it is abundantly clear from the evidence here, and especially from what was discussed above in §5, that the Goddess was worshiped along with the God Yahweh by the Elephantine Jewish community, that Jewish women contributed taxes to her honor-and also fulfilled military service.


Rabbinic Judaism grows out of the broader Hebrew tradition reaching back into the second millennium B.C.E. It comes closer to focus after the return from exile (587-537 B.C.E.) to Jerusalem mainly of members of the tribe of Judah-hence the name of Judaism. Ideologically it entailed an emphasis on the study and living of the Torah, led by Ezra in the fourth century B.C.E. and by a group that came to be called scribes, on the one hand, and by the Pharisees stemming from the second century B.C.E. who emphasized ritual and Sabbath exactness and purity, on the other. These two elements gradually fused, especially in the crucible of the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem in 70 and 135 C.E., focusing on the rabbi as student and teacher of the Torah as the linchpin of Jewish religion and society. The teaching and discussions of the rabbis and their students began well before the beginning of the Common Era, but it was only around 200 C.E. that those teachings were first codified in writing. That codification resulted in the Mishnah, that is, the teaching of rabbis up to that time (these rabbis are called tannaim; other teachings of tannaim were also gathered in a collection called the Tosefta). The succeeding rabbis, called amoraim, commented on the Mishnah, and their teachings were gathered into two Talmuds, the Palestinian or Jerusalem Talmud (codified in the fourth century C.E.) and the Babylonian Talmud (codified in the fifth century C.E.). This literature became normative for all subsequent Judaism, and hence it is extremely important to investigate the role of women therein.

 The status of women in the formative period of Rabbinic Judaism was very subordinate in general, as will be detailed in brief fashion below (see §106; for a thorough analysis, see Leonard Swidler, Women in Judaism). There were a number of rabbinic teachings about women that might be described as positive-negative, or ambivalent. They will also be discussed below (see §96). But there were two women in this period of Judaism who projected quite positive images, one of them very much so. They shall be discussed in detail here. The first is Beruria.

§85. Beruria the Unordained Rabbi

Beruria lived in Palestine during the first part of the second century C.E., a time when the Roman empire was exerting maximum oppression on the numerous Jews (perhaps eight million of a total one hundred million population) within its borders. She was the daughter of one rabbi, Hananya ben Teradyon, and the wife of another, Meir. But Beruria’s claim to fame lies not in her relationship to men, but in her own self and accomplishments. As the Encyclopaedia Judaica (Vol. 4, col. 701; Jerusalem, 1971) states, “she is famous as the only woman in talmudic literature whose views on halachic matters [religious law] are seriously reckoned with by the scholars of her time.” She provides an extraordinary, indeed unique, model of religious and intellectual profundity and strength in Rabbinic Judaism.

Beruria became an avid student of Torah, although we do not know who taught her to read or with what rabbi she studied; she may have studied with her father, but perhaps also with other rabbis. Apparently she went through the intensive three-year course of study customary for disciples of rabbis at the time:

Rabbi Simlai came before Rabbi Johanan and requested him: Let the master teach me the Book of Genealogies.... Let us learn it in three months, he proposed. Thereupon he (Rabbi Johanan) took a clod and threw it at him, saying: If Beruria, wife of Rabbi Meir and daughter of Rabbi Hananya ben Teradyon, who studied three hundred laws from three hundred teachers in one day could nevertheless not do her duty in three years, yet you propose to do it in three months! (Talmud bPesachim 62b)

Beruria not only put in the canonical three-year program of study but also did it in such an exemplary manner that she was held up as an example of how to study Torah. Indeed, her reputation as an avid student was so great that it spawned legends about her studiousness, as in the clearly hyperbolic reference to the three hundred laws studied from three hundred teachers every day for three years. Such a legend was quite a compliment to her reputation, and triply so when it is also recalled that Beruria was being held up to be emulated by Rabbi Simlai who himself was a very renowned rabbi, and that Rabbi Simlai lived over a hundred years after Beruria.

Beruria also took part in the discussions and debates among the rabbis and their more able followers. In one such debate over a very technical matter of ritual purity, she opposed, and bested, her brother: in referring to Beruria, Rabbi Judah ben Baba said, “His daughter has answered more correctly than his son” (Tosephta Kelim B. K. 4, 17).

Another debate was recorded in which two rabbinical schools were ranged on opposite sides, whereupon Beruria gave her solution. “When these words were said before Rabbi Judah, he commented, ‘Beruria has spoken rightly’ “ (Tosephta Kelim B. M. 1, 6). The striking thing about these reports, and others elsewhere in the Talmud, is that a woman’s opinion on Torah became law, halacha. At least one woman penetrated to the heart of Judaism, Torah, and not only as an absorbent student but also as a rabbinical disputant and a decisive maker of law.

But beyond these accomplishments Beruria also followed the path of all other really able students of Torah and became a teacher of Torah:

Beruria once discovered a student who was learning in an undertone. Rebuking him, she exclaimed: Is it not written, “ordered in all things and sure?” If it (the Torah) is “ordered” in your 248 limbs it will be “sure,” otherwise it will not be “sure.” (Talmud bErubin 53b)

The then common mode of studying Torah was to recite it aloud to memorize it more effectively. Here Beruria not only drilled the student as a schoolmistress, but did so in a peculiarly rabbinic fashion: she quoted from the Torah and argued her position by explaining and applying the scriptural passage. Her rebuke of the student was gentle; she tried to lead him more deeply into his studies. As one modern Jewish woman scholar states, “One gets the impression that Beruria had the personality of a master-rebbe who was seriously concerned with the spiritual and educational welfare of people” (Anne Goldfeld, “Women as Sources of Torah in the Rabbinic Tradition,” Judaism, Spring 1975, pp. 245-256). That this story of Beruria, together with one of her teaching the famous rabbi Jose the Galilean on the road to Lydda, is grouped with a number of other rabbinical stories about teaching, indicates that the editors of the Babylonian Talmud were aware of her teaching prowess as late as the fifth century-three centuries after her death.

Still another story recorded in the Talmud portrays Beruria teaching Torah in the customary rabbinical manner-quoting, explaining, and applying Scripture:

A certain min (Sadducee) said to Beruria: It is written: “Sing, O barren, thou that didst not bear.” Because she did not bear, she should sing? She said to him: Fool! Look at the end of the verse, where it is written, “for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, saith the Lord.” Rather, what is the meaning of “O barren, thou that didst not bear”?-Sing O community of Israel, who resembles a barren woman, for not having borne children like you, who are damned to hell. (Talmud bBerakhoth 10a)

Beruria clearly did not suffer fools gladly, as this story and the one about Rabbi Jose the Galilean related below indicate. She could also be extremely sympathetic and sensitive to those she felt were sincere, but here she faced a man she thought was helping to destroy true Judaism (min is to be understood here either as a Sadducee opponent of the Pharisees/rabbis or as a Jewish-Christian) and who apparently was expounding Scripture in an ignorant way. If there was anything Beruria could not tolerate, it was a man being pretentious about Torah.

Beruria likewise had an intense moral fervor and sensitive concern for persons, as illustrated by the following story about her and her famous husband, Rabbi Meir:

Certain highwaymen living in the neighborhood of Rabbi Meir annoyed him greatly, and Rabbi Meir prayed for them to die. His wife Beruria said to him: What is your view? Is it because it is written: “Let the sinners be consumed?” Is “sinners” written? “Sins” is written. Moreover, look at the end of the verse: “and let the wicked be no more.” Since the sins will cease, the wicked will be no more. He prayed for them and they repented. (Talmud bBerakhoth 10a)

This is clearly high moral advice, presented with the usual scriptural quotation, analysis, and application of its meaning. Beruria here showed herself the superior of the best male rabbinical mind and moral spirit; the bard proof of that is that Rabbi Meir took her advice, with success. A modern male Jewish scholar has commented on this passage: “Students sufficiently familiar with Hebrew would profit greatly by following Beruria’s argument in the Talmud’s original text, also looking up the Hebrew of the verse.” (B. M. Lerner, in A. Ehrman, ed., The Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds Translated Into English with Commentary, bBerakhoth 10a, p. 189; Jerusalem, 1965ff.)

If Beruria was a brilliant student and teacher of Torah, a decider of halacha, and one who lived and taught an intensely moral life, did she not have all the qualities of a rabbi? Rabbi, after all, simply meant “master” or “teacher”; it was a term of respect given to the teachers of Torah who were expected to decide the law and live morally. She clearly did, but in the documents as we have them she is never referred to as rabbi. Presumably she never received the “ordination” (semikhah) to the rabbinate that promising young men normally received at the completion of their studies. (At least one man, Ben Azzai, of the first century, was also learned in the Law, taught law, decided law, and was of high moral character, and was also not “ordained,” and hence not referred to as rabbi.) There was no legal reason why she could not have been “ordained”; rather, the generally very low rabbinic estimate of women is the most likely reason, though from the documents which are available we cannot know that for certain.

Beruria, as she appears in the pages of rabbinic writings, is a person who lived a very full human life with perhaps more than her measure of suffering. Hers was the time of the final destruction of the Jewish homeland in Palestine by the Romans in 13 5 C.E., until it was reestablished in the twentieth century. She lost her father Rabbi Hananya ben Teradyon in these same Hadrianic persecutions. Her brother, whom she had bested in a Torah dispute, disgraced the family by turning to banditry and subsequently was murdered by his gang for trying to inform on them. Her sister was forced into a brothel by the conquering Roman authorities, although Beruria contrived to have her husband, Rabbi Meir, rescue her. But perhaps the most tragic suffering of her life was the death of two of her sons. Her endurance and response to their sudden deaths is recalled in the following rabbinic story:

When two of their sons died on Sabbath, Beruria did not inform Meir of their children’s death upon his return from the academy in order not to grieve him on the Sabbath! Only after the Havdalah prayer did she broach the matter, saying: Some time ago a certain man came and left something in my trust; now he has called for it. Shall I return it to him or not? Naturally Meir replied in the affirmative, whereupon Beruria showed him their dead children. When Meir began to weep, she asked: Did you not tell me that we must give back what is given on trust? “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away.” (Midrash Proverbs 30, 10)

In the midst of extraordinary suffering we see her rabbinic style coming to the fore once more, as she tells a story and applies it to the present situation with a Scripture quotation. Likewise, the stereotypical sex roles are reversed as the strong Beruria takes the more intellectual approach, and Rabbi Meir weeps.

In all the stories recorded about Beruria, she is always set over against a man; the only story involving another woman is really not a tale about Beruria but about her husband, who was asked by Beruria to rescue her sister from the brothel (Talmud bAboda Zara 176-182). In the rabbinic writings Beruria is seen only as a rabbinic student, disputant, halachic decision maker, and above all a teacher-always with men. Moreover, she is always superior to the men, whether as a model of studiousness, a teacher, or as a superior and even at times triumphant disputant and exegete. This is the case even in regard to her husband, the most learned and renowned rabbi of his age. If such a strong and positive image comes through even the totally male memorized, written, and edited rabbinic materials, what must Beruria have been like?

Beruria had to be an unusual-a rabbinical-woman to make a broad mark on that massive male work, the Talmud. Clearly she did not fit the female stereotype of her day. But she was more than that. She very keenly felt the oppressed, subordinate position women held in the Jewish society around her, and struck out against it. Her consciousness was extremely sensitized:

Rabbi Jose the Galilean was once on a journey when he met Beruria. “By what road,” he asked her, “do we go to Lydda?” “Foolish Galilean,” she replied, “did not the Sages say this: Engage not in much talk with women? You should have asked: By which to Lydda?” (Talmud bErubin 53b)

What is irritating Beruria is woman’s second-class status, here reflected in the rabbinic law that a man should not speak much with women, who are too “lightheaded” to waste time on, and sexually tempting besides. Here was a chance to throw verbal acid in the face of one of her “oppressors.” A student she treated gently; the rabbi she called a fool. But with her keen wit she did not simply vituperate the rabbi (one wonders if he had earlier delivered himself of some pompous sage quotation on the frivolity and inferiority of women to have earned this breathtaking attack); instead, she carefully followed, the traditional rabbinic pattern of disputation by rebutting a statement with a quotation from the written or oral Law. Always she remained the intellectual.

What a weight Beruria’s reputation must, have had in talmudic times for this vitriolic putdown of a rabbi to be noted, remembered for hundreds of years, and ultimately made permanent in the final redaction of the Talmud. That there was obviously also a counter feeling among the early rabbis is reflected only in a shadowy fashion in the last line of the talmudic story about Rabbi Meir’s rescue of Beruria’s sister from a brothel. There was a backlash to his rescue efforts and “he then arose and ran away and came to Babylon; others say because of the incident about Beruria” (Talmud bAboda Zara 182). No further information about the “incident” is given in the Talmud. There is merely this dark reference, sheer innuendo.

A thousand years later, we find a full-blow legend about the incident in the commentary on this passage by the famous Jewish medieval talmudic scholar Rashi:

Beruria once again made fun of the saying of the Sages that women are lighthearted. Then Meir said to her: With your life you will have to take back your words. Then he sent one of his students-to test her to see if she would allow herself to be seduced. He sat by her the whole day until she surrendered herself to him. When she realized what she had done) she strangled herself. Thereupon Rabbi Meir ran away (to Babylonia) on account of the scandal. (Rashi, quoted in Hans Kosmala, “Gedanken zur Kontroverse Farbstein-Hoch,” Judaica, 1948, pp. 225-227)

There is nothing at all in the intelligence, perceptiveness, and moral character of Beruria to make this in any way credible. Would she not have perceived that her husband had set a trap for her? Is it not incomprehensible that the great Rabbi Meir could have commissioned his rabbinic student to commit one of the three deadly sins in its most serious form: sexual immorality with a married Jewish woman? Finally, why would it take a thousand years for this story, so out of character with all of the previously known documentation, to surface? It clearly was invented simply to morally annihilate Beruria, the one woman of superior stature in the Talmud, Beruria the feminist-for it was exactly on that point that she was attacked. Because she took an overtly feminist stance of rejecting the rabbinic stereotyping of women as intellectually inferior she was told she would have to give up her life. Feminism was a capital crime! In male chauvinist fashion the moral destruction planned for her would reduce her to the female stereotype, a weak sexual creature who could not resist a determined Don Juan.

Despite the historical bankruptcy of this late legend, it does underline Beruria’s towering reputation in her lifetime and for centuries afterward. The very attempt to destroy it is evidence of its power. Although the opposition was already there in talmudic times, as is seen in the innuendo about the “incident,” the later hatchet job suggests that the enemies of what she stood for grew stronger in time. Fortunately the character assassination attempt was far from completely successful, for the clearly historically based evidence of the earlier talmudic stories remains today. Less fortunately, the fact that the talmudic evidence was not erased bears witness not only to the vigorous reputation of Beruria but also to the faithful honesty of the generations of rabbis who memorized, handed on-and finally wrote down, collected, and edited the stories about Beruria. This latter means that there were no other women who entered and advanced in the heartland of Judaism, the study of the Torah, otherwise we would have talmudic stories of them as well. Beruria was the “exception that proves the rule” that in talmudic days women did not study Torah.

A medieval dictum has it: “If it happened, it’s possible”-ab esse ad posse. If in the midst of a very male-dominated society and religion, as Rabbinic Judaism certainly was, Beruria could lead a full human life, could reach the highest level of “religious” life by becoming a renowned and redoubtable student and teacher of Torah, then really anything within Judaism is “possible” for Jewish women. Beruria continues to be a preeminent teacher through the example of her life. A key lesson was her essentially linking feminism to a commitment to live a full Jewish life.

§86. The Anonymous Maidservant of Rabbi Judah the Prince

Of much less importance as a model for Jewish women, but nevertheless of significance as an example of a woman who despite the obstacles attained visibility in the formative period of male-centered Rabbinic Judaism (end of the second century C.E., when the first rabbinic writings, the Mishnah, were being codified) is the image of the maid of Rabbi Judah the Prince.

Perhaps the first thing to notice about this maidservant of Rabbi Judah (the codifier of the Mishnah) is that she is nameless; in the five, or possibly six, places in the Babylonian Talmud where she is mentioned she is always referred to only as Rabbi Judah’s maidservant or domestic. Our evidence concerning her is very meager. We do know that she had learned at least some Hebrew, something of the symbolic style of speaking current among rabbis and their students, and was an imposing and responsible enough member of Rabbi Judah’s household to be able to levy an excommunication and exercise a powerful prayer at the death of the rabbi-no mean accomplishments for a woman servant. However, given the slimness of the documentation, one must be careful neither unduly to expand nor contract its significance. It is necessary to look at each portion separately before attempting an overall evaluation.

If the reference in Talmud bShabbath 152a, about a ninety-two-year-old domestic of Rabbi Judah’s household serving as a food taster, refers to the female domestic in question, as seems reasonably likely, and if it is coupled with the stories of her exercising significant household responsibilities, one gets the picture of an intelligent, perceptive woman servant who for many decades must have heard the great Rabbi Judah, and perhaps even his father, Rabbi Simon III, teaching his students and discussing halachic matters with his colleagues:

She even had charge of the tables reserved by the patriarch for the numerous pupils who received free board at his house; and as circumstances or her whims dictated, she would either immediately dismiss the students after the meals were over or invite them to remain a while longer. In such company she adopted the technical language known only to the initiated, and employed exclusively by the Rabbis, who scarcely ever expressed the principal idea literally, but nearly always resorted to symbols and figures of speech. (Henry Zirndorf, Some Jewish Women, p. 200; Philadelphia, 1892)

When Rabbi’s maid indulged in enigmatic speech she used to say this: The ladle strikes against the jar [all the wine in the jar has been used up]; let the eagles fly to their nests [the students may now leave the dining room for their lodgings]; and when she wished them to remain at table she used to tell them, The crown of her friend [the bung of the adjoining jar] shall be removed and the ladle will float in the jar like a ship that sails in the sea. (Talmud bErubin 53b)

That such a woman in that setting would have learned some Hebrew is not at all surprising, especially those terms dealing with kitchen and domestic matters. However, when we look at the passage in Talmud bMegilla 18a, it is a little difficult to conclude with some scholars (e.g., Shalom Ben Chorin, Mutter Mirjam, p. 99; Munich: Paul List Verlag, 1971) that she “commented on Bible verses which were difficult to understand.” The passage reads as follows:

The Rabbis did not know what was meant by serugin, until one day they heard the maid maidservant of Rabbi’s household, on seeing the Rabbis enter at intervals, say to them, How long are you going to come by serugin?

The Rabbis did not know what was meant by halugelugoth, til one day they heard the handmaid of the household of Rabbi, on seeing a man peeling portulaks, say to him, How long will you be peeling your portulaks? (halugelugoth).

The Rabbis did not know what was meant by salseleah (and it shall exalt). One day they heard the handmaid of the house of Rabbi say to a man who was curling his hair, How long will you be measalsel with your hair? ... [Then comes a similar example which does not involve Rabbi Judah’s maidservant.

The Rabbis did not know what was meant by we-tetethia bematate (of destruction), til one day they heard the handmaid of the household of Rabbi say to her companion, Take the tatitha (broom) and tati (sweep) the house, (Talmud bMegilla 18a; cf. bNazir 3a, bRosh Hashanah 26b, pSbebiit 9, 1, and pMegilla 2, 2 .)

To be sure, Ben Chorin is not alone in making the sort of claim he does: “She used to help the great scholar and his students to interpret difficult biblical passages by muttering clues to their interpretations as she cleaned the room” (Susan Wall, “Forgotten Jewish Women in Jewish History,” The Jewish Digest, November 1974, p, 9). Likewise: “In almost one breath this sensible woman once explained the meaning of four separate rabbinical expressions in the was done, and her half playful manner of concealing the act, are matters not without interest” (see Zirndorf, Some Jewish Women, p. 198).

There are difficulties with these explanations of this passage. First, those who were aided by the maidservant’s Hebrew utterances did not include Rabbi Judah himself. Secondly, that these word difficulties all occurred and were solved “in almost one breath” is quite unlikely. What is likely is that several different occasions were involved and that these four at any rate were remembered and (almost) brought together in this one passage-after all, they were also recorded singly elsewhere in the Talmud. The Talmud simply records that a group of rabbis who gathered around the household of Rabbi Judah the Prince were inadvertently assisted in understanding some, unusual Hebrew words when they overheard the maidservant on different occasions using a form of these words-which concerned household matters that a maidservant would deal with. It is just possible that the maid was circumspectly passing on some of her household Hebrew to perhaps relatively newly arrived rabbis, but there is nothing in the text that positively indicates that this was the case; rather, the contrary is true. If she was “commenting on Bible verses which were difficult to understand,” then neither the rabbis who overheard her utterances nor those who recorded them in the Talmud were aware that she was doing so. Still, it is possible.

This same maidservant also wielded an extraordinary degree of responsibility, as the following story of her banishing a malefactor from the company of the rabbi’s household indicates:

Then R. Samuel b. Nahmani got up on his feet and said: Why, even a “separation” imposed by one of the domestics in Rabbi’s house was not treated lightly by the Rabbis for three years; how much more so one imposed by our colleague, Rab Judah! ... What (was the incident) of the domestic in Rabbi’s house? It was one of the maidservants in Rabbi’s house that had noticed a man beating his grown-up son and said, Let that fellow be under a shammetha! because he sinned against the words (of Holy Writ): Put not a stumbling-block before the blind. For it is taught: and not put a stumbling-block before the blind; that text applies to the one who beats his grown-up son (and this caused him to rebel). (Talmud bMoed Katan 17a)

Obviously not only rabbis could “exclude” wrongdoers at that time, but obviously, too, the maidservant’s reputation must have carried some weight. It should also be noted that she also knew the rabbinic style of backing things up with a Scripture quotation-she doubtless had heard many such bannings issued over the decades.

The final story about Rabbi Judah’s maidservant reveals again her strength of character in a most dramatic manner:

On the day when Rabbi died the Rabbis decreed a public fast and offered prayers for heavenly mercy. They, furthermore, announced that whoever said that Rabbi was dead would be stabbed with a sword.

Rabbi’s handmaid ascended the roof and prayed: The immortals desire Rabbi (to join them) and the mortals desire Rabbi (to remain with them); may it be the will (of God) that the mortals may overpower the immortals. When, however, she saw how  often he resorted to the privy, painfully taking off his tefillin and putting them on again, she prayed: May it be the will (of the Almighty) that the immortals may overpower the mortals. As the Rabbis incessantly continued their prayers for (heavenly) mercy she took up a jar and threw it down from the roof to the ground. (For a moment) they ceased praying and the soul of the Rabbi departed to its eternal rest. (Talmud Kethuboth 104a)

Rabbi Henry Zirndorf explained this passage thus:

According to a prevailing belief of the time, so long as the sick man heard these impassioned prayers-and as he lay in the upper chamber he could scarcely help hearing them-it was impossible for him to draw his last breath. This belief is no conclusive proof of faith in miracles; the prolongation of life through intense momentary excitement is readily explained on psychological, and perhaps also on physiological grounds. But, however this may be, on the roof stood the maid-servant ... trying in vain to make her voice heard below. Then, seizing a lug all of a sudden, she threw it in the midst of the earnest crowd of suppliants. A dreadful pause ensued and, in the inimitable language of the Talmud, “the soul of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch reposed.” (Zirndorf, Some Jewish Women, pp. 203f.)

In sum, it is likely that the same maidservant is spoken of in all, the passages quoted, although one cannot be absolutely certain, since no name is ever given-a fact which in itself reveals a good deal about the inferior status of women, even those of strong character. This maidservant was a strong character who learned at least some Hebrew, could banter with rabbinic students in the “in” language, and at   least once wielded effectively the “separation” in the approved manner. For all of her strength of character, however, she is no evidence that women studied Torah. In fact, she is evidence that except for Beruria, they did not, for if such a servant had been male, he would doubtless have eventually been pulled into the ranks of the rabbinic students and then the rabbis, and would not have been the nameless, or known simply as a man’s servant. Still, against the odds of her being a woman on the edges of an exclusively male club, the rabbinate, she significantly and positively influenced the lives of those around her, and, through her memory recorded in the Talmud, those who came after.





There are at least four other women of note in the Hebrew Bible that are held up by the Bible itself for praise, who provide ambivalent models of women. Three of them (Ruth, Judith, and Esther) accomplish their ends largely through the stereotypical characteristics, sexual attractiveness. Three of them (Jael, Judith, and Esther) have the stereotypical impact on men (since the interpretation of the Fall as having meant Eve’s bringing death to Adam-see §104)-namely, death.

§87. Jael the Deadly Hostess

The Book of judges contains a story about Jael, who is celebrated as the killer of Sisera, Israel’s enemy. After the battle of Taanach, presumably in 1125 B.C.E., wherein Deborah and Barak led the Israelites in a crushing victory over Sisera and the Canaanites, Sisera fled for his life to the tent of the non-Israelite woman Jael. Her people were at peace with the Canaanites, which meant that the code of hospitality, with its extraordinary rigor in favor of the guest, should have applied. Sisera thought it did.

As repugnant as Jael’s conduct seems to us today, just how much it was a violation of the mores of that time and place can be appreciated only when the centrality of the virtue of hospitality in that culture is perceived:

In the desert hospitality is a necessity for survival; and since this necessity falls on all alike, any guest is entitled to hospitality from any host. Should host and guest be at enmity, the acceptance of hospitality involves a reconciliation. The guest, once the host has accepted him, is sacred and must be protected from any danger, even at the cost of the life of members of the a family. (John L. McKenzie, Dictionary of the Bible, p. 374; Bruce Publishing Co., 1965)

But the breach of the code of hospitality, the deception, and the cowardly murder are all waived aside in the Book of judges and Jael is held up in great praise both in a song of great antiquity and in a prose account. McKenzie laconically remarks: “actually she seems to have violated the customs of hospitality” (ibid., p. 410). In her deceitful, cowardly assassination Jael was very much like the later Judith. Unethical deeds done by women, if carried out for the sake of the Jewish people, are condoned. This ethical stance, however, is at variance with ethical principles of truthfulness, etc., elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. The Jael story clearly reflects an earlier stage of ethical development and as such offers little for emulation.

Sisera meanwhile fled on foot towards the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber, the Kenite. For there was peace between Jabin the king of Hazor and the family of Heber the Kenite. Jael came out to meet Sisera and said to him, “My lord, stay here with me; do not be afraid!” He stayed there in her tent and she covered him with a rug. He said to her, “Please give me a little water to drink, for I am thirsty.” She opened the skin that had milk in it, gave him some to drink and covered him up again. Then he said to her, “Stand at the door, and if anyone comes and questions you-if he asks, ‘Is there a man here?’ say, ‘No.’ “ But Jael the wife of Heber took a tent-peg, and picked up a mallet; she crept up softly to him and drove the peg into his temple right through to the ground. He was lying fast asleep, worn out; and so he died. And now Barak came up in pursuit of Sisera. Jael went out to meet him and said “Come in, and I will show you the man you are looking for.” He went into her tent; Sisera lay dead, with the tent-peg through his temple.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

“Blessed be Jael among women

(the wife of Heber the Kenite);

among all the women that dwell in tents may she be blessed.

He asked for water; she gave him milk;

in a precious bowl she brought him cream.

She stretched out her hand to seize the peg,

her right hand to seize the workman’s mallet.

She struck Sisera, crushed his head,

pierced his temple and shattered it.

At her feet he tumbled, he fell, he lay;

at her feet he tumbled, he fell.

Where he tumbled, there he fell dead.” (Judg 4:17-22; 5:24-27)

§88. Judith, a Femme Fatale

Judith seems a more attractive person than Jael. After all, it took quite a bit of courage to sally forth almost alone into an enemy army camp. (She left the besieged Jewish city, went to the enemy camp, seduced the leader and cut off his head while he slept.) Her story reads much like a modern spy adventure. But still in the end she murders a man by deception.

The Book of Judith is deuterocanonical, that is, although it is found in the ancient Jewish version of the Old Testament in Greek, it is no longer accepted by either Judaism or Protestantism as canonical. Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity do accept it as canonical. It was originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic, but only a Greek translation is extant. It probably was written in the second century B.C.E.

When it is asked what the image of woman is in the Book of Judith, the answer is stereotypical: woman accomplishes her end by adorning her physical beauty and seducing men, and in this instance in killing men. The highly respected Jewish scholar Solomon Zeitlin corroborated this point when he paraphrased the Talmud (Aboda Zara 25b):

Judith had no army. She had charm and beauty and with this she was sure she could conquer the enemy by beguiling Holofernes. The Talmud said well that woman had an army with her, that is sex. This is her main armor. (Solomon Zeitlin, Introduction to Morton S. Enslin, The Book of Judith, p. 14; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1972)

As in much of the Wisdom and apocalyptic Jewish literature (see §93 and 104), the implicit message here in Judith too is: beware of beautiful women-they will unman you and lead you to death. The redeeming factor in this case again of course is that Judith puts her evil womanly wiles at the service of her nation.

Judith is also quite unusual in the following way. Although she was a widow from her youth and was extremely beautiful, she did not take another husband either before killing Holofernes or afterward. Perhaps the placing of her seductive sexual powers at the service of her nation, and God, demanded, in this obviously fictional story, both that she not be “defiled” by Holofernes, or by any other man subsequently.

Jerome, who in the late fourth century C.E. translated the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate), used an ancient Aramaic manuscript of the Book of Judith, which since has been lost, leaving us with the Septuagint Greek as our oldest text. On the question of Judith’s “chastity,” Jerome’s translation differs from the Septuagint; in a rather mixed metaphor it says that in acting so continently Judith “behaved like a man”:

Since you behaved like a man (quia fecisti viriliter), your heart was strengthened, because you loved chastity and have known no other man since your husband. Hence the hand of the Lord gave you strength. So you will be blessed forever. (Judith 15:11-Vulgate)

The moral of the Book of Judith is not that women are good creatures of God, but rather that God is so great that he can bring good out of evil; not that women are to be valued greatly, but rather that God is so great that he can humble Israel’s enemies even through the lowliest of instruments, women-and the weapon women use against men, beguiling beauty and sex:

Assyria came down from the mountains of the north.... But the Lord Almighty has thwarted them by a woman’s band. For their hero did not fall at the young men’s bands, it was not the sons of Titans who struck him down, no proud giants made that attack, but Judith the daughter of Merari, who disarmed him with the beauty of her face. She laid aside her widow’s dress to rally those who were oppressed in Israel; she anointed her face with perfume, bound her hair under a turban, put on a linen gown to seduce him. Her sandal ravished his eye, her beauty took his soul prisoner ... and the scimitar cut through his neck! (Judith 16:3, 5-9)

On the positive side it must be noted that in the story Judith was thereafter highly thought of. But even the description of this praise betrays the inferior position in which women lived in that society. Had a male hero married after his glorious feat he would have continued in high honor in the society. But a female hero would immediately have been placed under the dominance of her husband-just as in the famous description of the perfect wife in Proverbs who worked from dawn to dusk all year, with the result that she should be given “a share in what her hands have worked for, and let her works tell her praise at the city gates,” but “her husband is respected at the city gates, taking his seat among the elders of the land” (Prov 31:31, 23). To avoid this eclipse of the heroine the writer of the Book of Judith bad to keep her celibate-but still alluring:

As long as she lived, she enjoyed a great reputation throughout the country. She had many suitors, but all her days, from the time her husband Manasseh died and was gathered to his people, she never gave herself to another man. Her fame spread more and more the older she grew in her husband’s house; she lived to the age of a hundred and five years. (Judith 16:21-23)

§89. Esther the Beauty Queen

The Book of Esther, a largely fictional story written perhaps in the second century B.C.E., begins, unintentionally it would seem, with an admirable model of a woman, on the one hand, and the most explicit kind of male supremacist attitude on the other. The admirable model is not Esther, the second, the Jewish, queen of the Persian king Ahasuerus, but his first queen, Vashti. Vashti is a woman of dignity, courage, and independence of spirit which included a willingness to take the consequences of her decisions.

After a seven-day-long celebration King Ahasuerus was drunk and ordered his eunuchs to fetch Queen Vashti, “in order to display her beauty to the people and the officers” (Esth 1: 11). She declined to come, an understandable decision given the probably riotous conditions of what by then must have been a somewhat sodden drinking bout. This infuriated the king and disturbed his advisers, for they thought that when word got abroad among the other wives in the kingdom, “there will be endless disrespect and insolence!” Hence, Queen Vashti had to be deposed, so that “all the women will henceforth how  to the authority of their husbands ... ensuring that each man might be master in his own house” (Esth 1:20, 22).

On the seventh day, when the king was merry with wine, he commanded ... the seven eunuchs in attendance ... to bring Queen Vashti before the king crowned with her royal diadem, in order to display her beauty to the people and the administrators, for she was very beautiful. But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command delivered by the eunuchs. The king was very angry at this and his rage grew hot. He then consulted the wise men who were versed in the law, since it was the practice to refer matters affecting the king to expert lawyers and jurists. He summoned ... the seven administrators of Persia and Media

According to the law,” he said , “what is to be done to Queen Vashti for not obeying the command of King Ahasuerus delivered by the eunuchs?” In the presence of the king and of the administrators Memucan answered, “Vashti has wronged not only the king, but also

all the administrators and nations inhabiting the provinces of King Ahasuerus. The queen’s conduct will soon become known to all the women and encourage them in a contemptuous attitude towards their husbands, since the will say, ‘King Ahasuerus ordered Queen Vashti to appear before him and she did not come.’ The wives of all the Persian and Median administrators will hear of the queen’s answer before the day is out, and will start talking to the king’s administrators in the same way; that will mean contempt and anger all round. If it is the king’s pleasure, let him issue a royal edict, to be irrevocably incorporated into the laws of the Persians and Medes, to the effect that Vashti is never to appear again before King Ahasuerus, and let the king confer her royal dignity on a worthier woman. Let this edict issued by the king be proclaimed throughout the length and breadth of his realm, and all the women will henceforth bow to the authority of their husbands, both high and low alike.” (Esth 1:10-20)

One contemporary Jewish woman writes that,

Further, in order to insure that we really have no shred of sympathy left for Vashti, several sources credit her with responsibility for preventing the king from giving his consent to the rebuilding of the Temple. These legends are very significant, for they reflect popular and rabbinic feeling. And it is very clear that in no way was Vashti’s refusal to debase herself seen by succeeding Jews as noble or courageous. Quite the contrary. The Rabbis must have found themselves in somewhat of a bind initially. On the one hand they couldn’t possibly approve the demand Ahasuerus makes on Vashti. On the; other band, to support her would be to invite female disobedience in other situations, an idea they apparently could not tolerate. They solve this by condemning Ahasuerus as foolish and by creating legends whereby Vashti is shown as getting exactly what she deserves. (Mary Gendler, “The Vindication of Vashti,” The Jewish Woman. Response, 18, Summer 1973, pp. 156f.)

After the deposition of Vashti, the Persian king held a beauty contest, which Hadassah, or Esther, a Jewish girl (though that fact was not known), won.

The king’s courtiers-in-waiting said, “Let beautiful girls be selected for the king. Let the king appoint commissioners throughout the provinces of his realm to bring all these beautiful young virgins to the citadel of Susa, to the harem under the authority of Hegai the king’s eunuch, custodian of the women. Let him provide them with what they need for their adornment, and let the girl who pleases the king take Vashti’s place as queen.” This advice pleased the king and he acted on it.... [Esther] had a good figure and a beautiful face.... She was brought to King Ahasuerus ... and the king liked Esther better than any of the other women; none of the other girls found so much favour and approval with him. So he set the royal diadem on her head and proclaimed her queen instead of Vashti. (Esth 2:2-4, 7, 16, 17)

In the rest of the story the Jew Mordecai, who secretly gives instructions to his niece Esther, refuses to bow before Haman, a high official, who then plots the death of Mordecai and a pogrom against the Jews. At Mordecai’s insistence Esther risks a breach of court custom to see the king. She succeeds in turning the tables on Haman, who instead is executed and seventy-five thousand of his countrymen are killed by the Jews-with her aid.

The image of woman projected here is that “good” women are beautiful and submissive; but the beauty of women is dangerous and leads to the death of many. Here again, as with Judith, the redeeming factor was that Esther put this death-dealing female power at the service of her people.

Aviva Cantor Zuckoff made a similar point when she wrote of Esther:

In doing so she must act aggressively toward her husband. She must engage in the same type of behavior that was condemned in Vashti-assertiveness, willingness to risk her life for her values, aggressiveness. But since she’s doing this not for herself but for her people, and with Mordecai’s approval and on his orders, it is condoned. Esther’s aggressiveness is praised and she becomes a role model for Jewish women.

Esther’s aggressiveness is approved because it is altruistic, as were the actions of Deborah, who judged the people, and Judith, who cut off the head of the Syrian-Creek general besieging her city. What it all adds up to is that it’s good for Jewish women to be strong and aggressive when the Jews are in danger and she’s acting in the people’s interest, in other words, when it’s “good for the Jews.” If we go through the Bible and legends carefully, we see that whenever Jewish survival is at stake, the Jewish woman is called upon to be strong and aggressive. When the crisis is over, it’s back to patriarchy. (Aviva Cantor Zuckoff, “The Oppression of the Jewish Woman,” The Jewish Woman. Response, 18, Summer 1973, p. 49)

The point of this whole story concerns the providence of God which preserves his people from annihilation-and by the most unlikely means, a woman, just as happened with Judith. The fact that in both these stories the “heroines” were women indicates not that women were often heroines or highly thought of in Jewish society at that time’ but just the opposite, that women were not heroines or highly thought of in that society; otherwise the stories would not have been interesting or worth telling. They were of interest exactly because they displayed God’s providence for his people by having them saved by the most unlikely and lowly means available-women.

In comparing Vashti and Esther, Mary Gendler wrote:

Ahasuerus can be seen not only as an Ultimate Authority who holds vast power over everyone, but more generally as male’ patriarchal authority in relation to females. As such, Vashti and Esther serve as models of how to deal with such authority. And the message comes through loud and clear: women who are bold, direct, aggressive and disobedient are not acceptable; the praiseworthy are those who are unassuming, quietly persistent, and who gain their power through the love they inspire in men. These women live almost vicariously, subordinating their needs and desires to those of others. We have only to look at the stereotyped Jewish Mother to attest the still-pervasive influence of the Esther-behavior-model.... What I am interested in here, however, is pointing up typical male and female models of behavior and, at that level, it is clear that society rewards men for being direct and aggressive while it condemns women, like Vashti, for equivalent behavior. For, in a sense, Mordecai and Vashti have behaved identically: both refuse to debase themselves by submitting to illegitimate demands. For this Mordecai is praised and Vashti is condemned. (Gendler, “Vindication of Vashti,” p. 158)

Gendler added an interesting proposal at the end of her article:

I propose, then, that Vashti be reinstated on the throne along with her sister Esther, together to rule and guide the psyches and actions of women. Women, combining the attributes of these two remarkable females-beauty softened by grace; pride tempered by humility; independence checked by heartful loyalties; courage; dignity-such women will be much more whole and complete than are those who simply seek to emulate Esther. The Lillith, the Vashti in us is valuable. It is time that we recognize, cultivate and embrace her! (Ibid., p. 160)

§90. Ruth: Subservient to Men, but Loyal to a Woman

The Book of Ruth presents a pleasant contrast to the bloody adventures of the books of judges, Judith, and Esther. The story is, quite idyllic. Nothing bad is said about anyone! There are no villains in the story. It is largely the tale of the loyalty and selfless love of one woman for another. It is its positive, fetching quality, however, that makes the Book of Ruth somewhat “dangerous,” for because of it the reader is likely to accept its image of women and their role uncritically.

A Hebrew woman, Naomi, has moved to a foreign country with her husband and two sons, who marry wives from there. After her husband’s and sons’ childless deaths Naomi returns home and A daughter-in-law, Ruth, selflessly follows. They live a hard life, but Ruth provides for them both. She meets, attracts, and wins to marriage a Hebrew kinsman of Naomi’s, thereby ensuring the bloodline of her dead husband from which line springs King David.

Clearly one of the purposes of this book is to show how the selfless loyalty of a foreigner, Ruth, served to continue the line of the Hebrew Elimelech (Naomi’s husband) and Mahlon (Ruth’s dead husband). It was of great consequence in Hebrew society that a man’s bloodline not die out; as a result the law of levirate (Deut 25:5ff.) was developed. By this law, if a married man dies childless, his next of kin has an obligation to marry his widow; children from that couple would be viewed as in the bloodline (and inheritance!) of the dead husband, All this is obviously in the structure of a patriarchal society rather than the earlier matrilineal society of the Goddess worshipers. On one level, the narrator’s, there is Ruth sacrificing her self-interest to continue a male line-no similar concern is exhibited, for example, about her own mother’s line. It obviously was not thought important enough to be even mentioned.

This dimension is reinforced by the clear parallels in the story of Ruth with that of Tamar (Genesis 38), who is specifically mentioned in Ruth (Ruth 4:2). Both Tamar and Ruth are foreigners (the former a Canaanite, the latter a Moabite), both are widows of Hebrews in the same family, both have children by a levir, but not the “proper” levir, both get their man by sexual seduction-Tamar clearly played the prostitute on the roadside (Gen 38:15-19), and Ruth followed Naomi’s instructions:

Naomi said to Ruth, “I must find a husband for you.... Remember that this man Boaz... is our relative. Now listen. This evening he will be threshing the barley. So wash yourself, put on some perfume, and get dressed in your best clothes.... After he falls asleep, go and lift the covers and lie down at his feet [a number of scholars note that in ancient Hebrew “feet” was often a euphemism for genitals]. He will tell you what to do.”... Ruth slipped over quietly, lifted the covers and lay down at his feet....Who are you?” he asked. “It’s Ruth... please marry me.”... May Yahweh bless you,” he said

You might have gone looking for a young man, either rich or poor, but you haven’t.... Now lie down and stay here till morning.”So she lay there at his feet, but she got up before it was light enough for her to be seen, because Boaz did not want anyone to know that she had been there. (Ruth 3:1-4, 7, 9-10, 13, 14)

To be sure, in that patriarchal society both Tamar and Ruth needed to find a man to support them, either husband or son. But as the two stories are told, there is an overriding concern that the two widows conceive a son by a levir, a relative of the dead husband, so his line might continue-that is, the value of women, besides their labor (like the “perfect wife” of Proverbs 3 1), was in the hearing of sons. In these two cases what was of paramount importance was that they led to King David. The elders of the village said to Boaz:

“And through the children Yahweh will give you by this young woman, may your House become like the House of Perez [Boaz’ ancestor] whom Tamar bore to Judah.” So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. And when they came together, Yahweh made her conceive and she bore a son. And the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be Yahweh who has not left the dead man without next of kin this day to perpetuate his name in Israel.”... And they named him Obed. This was the father of Jesse, the father of David. (Ruth 4:12-14, 17)

There are of course some extremely positive elements in the Book of Ruth. Note has already been taken of its nonviolent nature and the fact that it has only good to say about everyone. Also highlighted in the story is the virtue of loyalty beyond all demand of duty. What is of special interest here is that this supererogatory loyalty was exhibited by a woman, indeed by two women, and beyond that, the loyalty was toward another woman. This latter was not at all something that could be taken for granted in a patriarchal society.

The two Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth, obviously had developed a deep affection for their mother-in-law, Naomi, for after the death of their husbands they started out with Naomi on the road back to Judea (Ruth 1:7), and when Naomi told them that for their own good they should return “each ... to her mother’s house” (interesting that she did not say father’s house-is there a remnant of earlier matrilocality here?) they both cried aloud and refused. Orpah was clearly no slacker in altruistic loyalty to another woman. Naomi had to press much harder before she could force at least one of them, Orpah, to go back. But even this further effort was to no avail with Ruth, who uttered her immortal words of undying love of one woman for another.

And they took the road back to the land of Judah. Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to her mother’s house....” And she kissed them. But they wept aloud and said to her, “No, we will go back with you to your people.” And Naomi said , “You must return, my daughters; why come with me? ... No, my daughters, I should then be deeply grieved for you, for the hand of Yahweh has been raised against me.” And once more they started to weep aloud. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law and went back to her people, but Ruth clung to her. Naomi said to her, “Look, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her god. You must return too; follow your sister-in-law.” But Ruth said, “Do not press me to leave you and to turn back from your company, for

wherever you go, I will go,

wherever you live, I will live.

Your people shall be my people,

and your God, my God.

Wherever you die, I will die

and there I will be buried.

May Yahweh’s worst punishment

come upon me,

if ever death should come between us.” (Ruth 1:7-11, 13-17)

The other women in Naomi’s home village also recognized Ruth’s incredible love for and loyalty to Naomi and were clearly appreciative of it, for they remarked:

Your daughter-in-law ... loves you and is to you more than seven sons. (Ruth 4:15)

There is at least one other very important positive dimension to the Book of Ruth, and, although it does not have immediate bearing on women as such, it does have a very significant indirect import. The universality of Yahweh’s power and grace is strongly stamped on the very structure of the Book of Ruth. There was a stringent strand of nationalism, even at times of xenophobia, that ran through swaths of ancient Hebrew literature and life. For example, in almost direct opposition to the willing acceptance of Ruth the Moabite stood Deuteronomy’s dictum:

No Ammonite or Moabite is to be admitted to the assembly of Yahweh; ... and this for all time. (Deut 23:3)

The response in Nehemiah’s fifth-century B.C.E. period to the reading of this portion of the Torah was as follows:

As soon as the people had heard the Torah they excluded all of foreign descent from Israel. (Neh 13:3)

In the fifth century B.C.E. the Jewish “scribe” Ezra launched a vigorous, even vicious, drive to rid the Jewish population, recently returned from Persian exile, of all foreign wives and children (including Moabites), whatever the hardship and agony involved. The fear of course was that foreign customs and foreign deities would infiltrate the Jewish population through the foreign women-presumably especially Goddess worship, as all preexilic evidence suggests.

“The people of Israel, the priests and the Levites, have not broken with the natives of the countries who are steeped in abominations-Canaanites, Ammonites.... Moabites ... but have found wives among these foreign women for themselves and for their sons; the holy race has been mingling with the natives of the countries; in this act of treachery the chief men and officials have led the way.... So you must not give your daughters to their sons nor take their daughters for your sons; you must not be concerned for their peace or their prosperity.... We will make a solemn promise before our God to put away our foreign wives and the children born to them.” ... Among the members of the priesthood, these are the-names of those who were found to have married foreign women [there follow 112 names of Jewish men].... All these had married foreign wives; they put them away, both women and children. (Ezra 9:1, 2, 12; 10:3, 18, 44)

Another Jewish leader, Nehemiah, about the same time as Ezra, also acted strenuously against Jews marrying foreign women, including Moabites like Ruth:

At that time I again saw Jews who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab.... I reprimanded them and called down curses on them; I struck several of them and tore out their hair.... Are we then to follow your example and commit this grave sin, playing traitor to our God by marrying foreign women? One of the sons of Jehoiada, son of the high priest Eliashib, had married a daughter of Sanballat the Horonite; therefore I drove him out of my presence.... And so I purged them of everything foreign. (Neh 13:23, 25, 27-28, 30)

The Book of Ruth stands in stark contradiction to this vitriolic attitude toward foreign women. Ruth, a Moabite, is shown as an extremely selfless and loving person, and an essential link (along with that other foreign wife, Tamar) in the genealogy leading to David, the greatest king of Israel. But the author of the Book of Ruth is even more explicit in the praise of a foreign wife who so far outshines most persons that Israel’s God, Yahweh, is called upon to bless her abundantly:

“You take notice of me, even though I am a foreigner?” And Boaz answered her, “I have been told all you have done for your mother-in-law since your husband’s death, and how  you left your own father and mother and the land where you were born to come among a people whom you knew nothing about before you came here. May Yahweh reward you for what you have done!” (Ruth 2:10-12)

For linguistic reasons and because the Book of Ruth so opposes the xenophobic attitude of Ezra and Nehemiah, a number of scholars, though by no means all, are convinced that though the book is set in the time of judges (eleventh century B.C.E.), it really was written, at least in its final form, in the fifth century, the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, as a counter voice to them; it would have been then a voice both in favor of Yahweh’s universalism, of irenicism, the quiet, deep virtue of women, and the need for women to be loyal to women.

If this late dating is correct, it can be said that fortunately the Book of Ruth is not the only one written then that has an emphasis on Yahweh’s universalism. The Book of Jonah, perhaps also written in the immediate postexilic period, is about the conversion of Nineveh, the capital city of the hated Assyrians, to Yahweh. McKenzie says of the book:

Jonah, like Ruth, is a protest against the narrowness and exclusivism which often appeared in postexilic Judaism. This narrowness frequently expressed itself in a hate of foreign nations, a desire for their destruction rather than their recognition of the divinity of Yahweh. Hence Jonah marks one of the greatest steps forward in the spiritual advancement of biblical religion. (McKenzie, Dictionary of the Bible, p. 451)

A similar openness to foreigners is also found in Third Isaiah, likewise written in this period after the return from exile in opposition to the exclusivist position. It is interesting to note that Third Isaiah also opens Yahwism to eunuchs, who along with foreigners were excluded from the community of Israel by Deuteronomy; the eunuchs did not produce offspring. The same theme is repeated in the first century B.C.E. deuterocanonical Book of Wisdom, which pronounces blessed not only the eunuch but also the barren woman-virtue is better than children. In the Book of Wisdom the doctrine of the immortality of the soul is expounded; perhaps it is also hinted at in Third Isaiah. The person’s immortality is no longer located in offspring; therefore, not having children is not an unmitigated disaster, and the barren woman’s and the eunuch’s value can be affirmed.

Let no foreigner who has attached himself to Yahweh say, “Yahweh will surely exclude me from his people.” Let no eunuch say, “And I, I am a dried-up tree.”

For Yahweh says this: To the eunuchs who observe my sabbaths, and resolve to do what pleases me and cling to my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall never be effaced.

Foreigners who have attached themselves to Yahweh to serve him and to love his name and be his servants-all who observe the sabbath, not profaning it, and cling to my covenant-these I will bring to my holy mountain. I will make them joyful in my house of prayer. Their holocausts and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar, for my house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.

It is the Lord Yahweh who speaks, who gathers the outcasts of Israel: there are others I will gather besides those already gathered. (Is 56:3-8)

Blessed the barren woman.... Her fruitfulness will be seen at the scrutiny of souls. Blessed too the eunuch.... For his loyalty special favour will be granted him, a most desirable portion in the temple of the Lord. (Wisdom 3:13-14)

§91. Good Wives and Mothers

As will be briefly discussed below, much of what the Wisdom literature in the Bible has to say about women is extremely negative, even misogynist. But that same literature does also contain a number of positive statements about wives and mothers. This material is found basically in two books, Proverbs and Ben Sira (also called Ecclesiasticus). The latter is not accepted in the Jewish and Protestant canon but is in the Catholic and Orthodox canon. Ben Sira is in the Greek Septuagint, but was originally written in Hebrew in 190 B.C.E. Proverbs is a collection of Wisdom writings, some of which were written before the sixth century B.C.E. exile and some after.

Proverbs has two brief sayings about the honor due a mother, as well as a father:

Listen to your father who begot you, do not despise your mother in her old age.... May you be the joy of your father, the gladness of her who bore you! (Prov 23:22, 25)

There are also four short aphorisms about the value of a good wife in the book of Proverbs:

A gracious woman brings honour to her husband.

A good wife, her husband’s crown.

Who finds a wife finds happiness, receiving a mark of favour from Yahweh.

From Yahweh [comes] a wife who is discreet. (Prov 11:16; 12:4; 18: 22; 19:14)

Ben Sira has a number of sayings about honoring father and mother (he also has several about fathers alone, but never about mothers alone):

The Lord honours the father in his children, and upholds the rights of a mother over her sons.

Whoever respects his father is atoning for his sins, he who honours his mother is like someone amassing a fortune....

Long life comes to him who honours his father, he who sets his mother at case is showing obedience to the Lord....

A man’s honor derives from the respect shown to his father, and a mother held in dishonour is a reproach to her children....

The man who deserts his father is no better than a blasphemer, and whoever angers his mother is accursed of the Lord....

With all your heart honour your father, never forget the birthpangs of your mother....

Remember your father and mother when you are sitting among princes. (Ben Sira 3:2-4, 6, 7, 11, 16; 7:27; 23:14)

Even more than Proverbs, Ben Sira has several sayings on what a boon it is to have a good wife-she is placed very high on the list of values:

Happy the husband of a really good wife;

the number of his days will be doubled.

A perfect wife is the joy of her husband,

he will live out the years of his life in peace.

A good wife is the best of portions,

reserved for those who fear the Lord....

Like the sun rising over the mountains of the Lord

is the beauty of a good wife in a well-kept house.

The man who takes a wife has the makings of a fortune,

a helper that suits him, and a pillar to learn on....

When a man has no wife, he is aimless and querulous. (Ben Sira 26:1-3, 16; 36:24, 25)

Ben Sira also has something to say about the desirable virtues of a wife. They presumably are meant as compliments, but really require genteel subservience from the woman:

The grace of a wife will charm her husband,

her accomplishments will make him the stronger.

A silent wife is a gift from the Lord,

no price can be put on a well-trained character.

A modest  wife is a boon twice-over,

a chaste character cannot be weighed on scales.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

If her tongue is kind and gentle,

her husband has no equal among the sons of men. (Ben Sira 26: 13-15; 36:23)

Despite his fears of and warnings against beauty in women, Ben

Sira also had an appreciative eye, and pen, for feminine beauty:

Like the lamp standing on the sacred lamp-stand

is a beautiful face on a well-proportioned body.

Like golden pillars on a silver base

are shapely legs on firm-set heels.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

A woman’s beauty delights the beholder,

a man likes nothing better. (Ben Sira 26:17-18; 36:22)

As laudatory of women as some of these biblical sayings are, it should be noted that women are praised only in their roles as related beneficially to men, that is, as mothers and wives. (it is also interesting that, although fathers are praised here, good husbands are never lauded or even mentioned-only good wives: a clear sign of total male orientation.) Further, nothing good is ever said in these books about women in any other roles, or about women as such, although bad things are said about women as such. To the extent that women can help men they are appreciated, not otherwise.

This is made dramatically clear in the widely known poem in Proverbs 31 honoring the “Perfect Wife,” understandably often used at weddings and similar occasions. The husband’s enthusiasm can be appreciated, for he “will derive no little profit from her. Advantage and not hurt she will bring him all the days of her life” (Prov 31:11-12). The wife works uncommonly bard, exercising a great deal of business judgment and responsibility (not in her own name, however, as can be seen in 3 1:3 1); the result is not that she is given some religious responsibility or honorific title or position-rather, her husband is: “Her husband is respected at the city gates, taking his seat among the elders of the land” (31:23). It is no wonder she is appreciated; she is the model for the “Perfect Servant.” Indeed, the impression given by this poem is that thanks to the diligence of the wife the husband is a man of leisure. In return for her complete self-sacrifice she is given praise by the men: “Her sons stand up and proclaim her blessed, her husband too sings her praises” (31:28), and those men gathered at the city gates “let her works tell her praises at the city gates” (31:31). She is allowed to share in the fruits of her labor: “Give her a share in what her bands have worked for” (31:3 1).

The paean of praise of the “Perfect Wife” is in the form of an alphabetic poem, each verse beginning with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet.


A perfect wife-who can find her?

She is far beyond the price of pearls.


Her husband’s heart has confidence in her,

from her he will derive no little profit.


Advantage and not hurt she brings him

all the days of her life.


She is always busy with wool and with flax,

she does her work with eager bands.


She is like a merchant vessel

bringing her food from far away.


She gets up while it is still dark

giving her household their food,

giving orders to her serving girls.


She sets her mind on a field, then she buys it;

with what her bands have earned she plants a vineyard.


She puts her back into her work

and shows how  strong her arms can be.


She finds her labour well worth while;

her lamp does not go out at night.


She sets her bands to the distaff,

her fingers grasp the spindle.


She holds out her hand to the poor,

she opens her arms to the needy.


Snow may come, she has no fears for her household,

with all her servants warmly clothed.


She makes her own quilts,

she is dressed in fine linen and purple.


Her husband is respected at the city gates,

taking his seat among the elders of the land.


She weaves linen sheets and sells them,

she supplies the merchant with sashes.


She is clothed in strength and dignity,

she can laugh at the days to come.


When she opens her mouth, she does so wisely-,

on her tongue is kindly instruction.


She keeps good watch on the conduct of her household,

no bread of idleness for her.


Her sons stand up and proclaim her blessed,

her husband, too, sings her praises:


“Many women have done admirable things,

but you surpass them all!”


Charm is deceitful, and beauty empty;

the woman who is wise is the one to praise.


Give her a share in what her bands have worked for,

and let her works tell her praises at the city gates. (Prov 31:10-31)

§92. Bad Wives

Not all the remarks about wives, however, are positive. Some are vaguely ominous, as: “Do not turn against a wise and good wife. . . . Have you a wife to your liking? Do not turn her out; but if you dislike her, never trust her” (Ben Sira 7:19, 26). Some are rather threatening comparisons:

A godless wife is assigned to a transgressor as his fortune, but a devout wife given to the man who fears the Lord. A shameless wife takes pleasure in disgracing herself, a modest wife is diffident even with her husband. A headstrong wife is a shameless bitch, but one with a sense of shame fears the Lord. A wife who respects her husband will be acknowledged wise by all, but the one who proudly despises him will be known by all as wicked. (Ben Sira 26:23-26)

In many instances pure vitriol is poured on the wife, as in the book of Proverbs:

A woman’s scolding is like a dripping gutter.... The steady dripping of a gutter on a rainy day and a scolding woman are alike. Whoever can restrain her, can restrain the wind, and with right hand grasp oil.... Better the corner of a loft to live in than a house shared with a scolding woman.... Better to live in a desert land than with a scolding and irritable woman. (Prov 19:13; 27:15-16; 21:9; 25:24; 21:19)

Ben Sira easily matches Proverbs in anti-wife acid:

I would sooner keep house with a lion or a dragon than keep house with a spiteful wife. A wife’s spite changes the appearance of her husband and makes him look like a bear. When her husband goes out to dinner with his neighbours, he cannot help heaving bitter sighs.... Low spirits, gloomy face, stricken heart: such the achievements of a spiteful wife. Slack bands and sagging knees indicate a wife who makes her husband wretched.... A bad wife is a badly fitting ox yoke, trying to master her is like grasping a scorpion. A drunken wife will goad anyone to fury, she makes no effort to bide her degradation. (Ben Sira 25:16-18, 23; 26:7-8)

§93. Misogynism

One other biblical book in the Wisdom literature collection is pertinent here. Ecclesiastes, written in 250 B.C.E., is an unusually short book, twelve brief chapters, and also has unusually little to say about women. Except for a few metaphorical references to women. and an exhortation to marital fidelity (Eccles 9:9), the only reference. to women is an especially vitriolic and bitter one: “I find woman more bitter than death; she is a snare, her heart a net, her arms are chains” (Eccles 7:26). Here the remarks are not like the statements praising women; that is, they are not directed toward women in relationships, as mothers or wives of men. Rather, the statements are directed toward women as such: “I find woman,” not “my woman.” This would seem to fulfill the definition of misogynism, of woman-hating. The author then raises misogynism to the level of a religious virtue: “He who is pleasing to God eludes her, but the sinner is her captive” (Eccles 7:26). Here there is no pretense of a virtuous rejection of woman as a prostitute or adulteress; all women have been reduced to essential evil. Of course, in general Ecclesiastes is very pessimistic, as is reflected, among other places, in his remark that only one man in a thousand is “better than the rest.” This is surely a relatively low estimate of men; but his condemnation of women is absolute: “but never a woman” (Eccles 7:28).

In similar fashion Ben Sira pours invective on prostitutes, adulteresses, daughters in general, and all but submissive wives. He also bitterly abuses women in general with an intensity that surpasses previous biblical misogynism. It would also seem that for Ben Sira all women are nymphomaniacs, at least in the passive sense: “A woman will accept any husband, but some daughters are better than others” (Ben Sira 36:21). For Ben Sira it also seems that all women are spiteful by nature: “Do not let water find a leak, do not allow a spiteful woman free rein for her tongue. If she will not do as you tell her, get. rid of her.... For moth comes out of clothes, and woman’s spite out of woman” (25:25-26; 42:13). He pushes the matter further: “Any spite rather than the spite of a woman!” (25:13). And still further: “A man’s spite is preferable to a woman’s kindness; women give rise to shame and reproach’‘ (42:14). Indeed, to Ben Sira women are the greatest evil in the world by far! “No wickedness comes anywhere near the wickedness of a woman, may a sinner’s lot be hers!” (25:19). Woman is not only the greatest of evils, but in fact the cause of all evil: “Sin began with a woman, and thanks to her we all must die” (25:24).

§94. Great Women Behind Great Men

The next passage is much more positive toward women, though it is still ambivalent. The setting of the story is at the court of Darius, king of Persia, where the Jews were in exile (sixth century B.C.E.). Three pages dispute before the king as to what is the strongest thing. The first argues for wine, the great leveler; the second argues for the king; the third-Zerubbabel, future leader of the Jews-argues for women:

Then the third, that is Zerubbabel, who had spoken of women and truth, began to speak: “Gentlemen, is not the king great, and are not men many, and is not wine strong? Who then is their master, or who is their lord? Is it not women? Women gave birth to the king and to every people that rules over sea and land. From women they came; and women brought up the very men who plant the vineyards from which comes wine. Women make men’s clothes; they bring men glory; men cannot exist without women. If men father gold and silver or any other beautiful thing, and then see a woman lovely in appearance and beauty, they let all those things go, and gape at her, and with open mouths stare at her, and all prefer her to gold or silver or any other beautiful thin. A man leaves his own father, who brought him up, and his own country, an cleaves to his wife. With his wife he ends his days, with no thought of his father or his mother or his country. Hence you must realize that women rule over you!

“Do you not labor and toil, and bring everything and give it to women? A man takes his sword, and goes out to travel and rob and steal and to sail the sea and rivers; he faces lions, and he walks in darkness, and when he steals and robs and plunders, he brings it back to the woman he loves. A man loves his wife more than his father or his mother. Many men have lost their minds because of women, and have become slaves because of them. Many have perished, or stumbled, or sinned, because of women. And now do you not believe me?

“Is not the king great in his power? Do not all lands fear to touch him? Yet I have seen him with Apame, the king’s concubine, the daughter of the illustrious Bartacus; she would sit at the king’s right hand and take the crown from the king’s head and put it on her own, and slap the king with her left band. At this the king would gaze at her with mouth agape. If she smiles at him, he laughs; if she loses her temper with him, he flatters her, that she may be reconciled to him. Gentlemen, why are not women strong, since they do such things?’‘ (1 Esdras 4:13-32)

Zerubbabel then proceeded to argue that the truth is nevertheless the victor over all. This would seem to be an early version of the notion that behind every great man is a great woman. It does not indicate that women had a high status. On the contrary. Women seem to have been relegated to hearing men-who then did all the important things of the world-and to being the object of men’s sexual desires. Women’s humanity and their sexuality were coextensive. Not so with men.

The book of I Esdras is part of the Apocrypha, not the Pseudepigrapha. It is found in the Septuagint Greek Bible, but not in the Masoretic Hebrew text. Jerome included it in his Latin Vulgate translation, but since the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century the Catholic Church has not included it in the regular part of the Bible.

The First Book of Esdras is largely the story of the return of the Jews from exile and the subsequent events, mostly all found in the canonical book Ezra-Nehemiah. Hence, either it is largely derived from Ezra-Nehemiah; or vice versa; or both are from a common source, or parallel sources. It is judged to have been composed in the second century B.C.E. (see Herbert G. May and Bruce M. Metzger, eds., The Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, The Apocrypha, p. 1; Oxford University Press, 1965), and quite likely in Egypt (see McKenzie, Dictionary of the Bible, p. 42). Since this story is missing from the Ezra-Nehemiah account, it probably was added from non-Jewish sources, e.g., Egyptian: “The story probably originated outside the Jewish community as a popular tale praising the relative strength of wine, kings, and women (the original order was perhaps kings, wine, and women). The praise of the strength of truth (4:33-41; compare 3:12) was added later in the transmission of the story, perhaps by a Greek-speaking editor (this part of the story has close parallels to Greek thought and literature)” (Oxford Annotated Bible, Apocrypha, pp. 5f.).

The alternate theory is that earlier this story had been included in the Ezra-Nehemiah account, but then was excised: “Although our O.T. has lost the story of Zerubbabel and the Praise of Truth, there is no doubt that there is something ‘unbiblical’ in the orations. In the course of the growth of the O.T., compilers and revisers have not unfrequently obscured or omitted that to which they took exception, and some light is thus often thrown upon other phases of contemporary Palestinian or Jewish thought.” (R. H. Charles, The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, Vol. 1, p. 19; Oxford University Press, 1913. It should also be noted that the Jewish historian Josephus in the late first century C.E. also records the same story. See Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews XI.iii.5.)

In either case, if the story could be said to reflect a high status for women, the reflected reality was not evident in Palestinian Judaism, and in the second theory, even that reflection was removed by the redactor of the canonical Ezra-Nehemiah.


§95. Therapeutae: Jewish Women and Men Contemplatives

The Therapeutae (“healers”) were a sect of Jewish ascetic contemplatives who lived near Alexandria, Egypt, in the first century C.E. What we know about them comes from Philo alone. In their monastic, celibate, ascetic, contemplative life-style they were very like the Essenes in Palestine. However, they were dramatically different from the Essenes in that among the celibate contemplatives of the Therapeutae there were women. When speaking of the celebration of a religious feast Philo describes the women Therapeutae as quite on a par with the men, though it is clear from elsewhere that the leading teachers of the sect were men:

The feast is shared by women also, most of them aged virgins, who have kept their chastity not under compulsion, like some of the Greek priestesses, but of their own free will in their ardent yearning for wisdom. Eager to have her for their life mate they have spurned the pleasures of the body and desire no mortal offspring but those immortal children which only the soul that is dear to God can bring to the birth unaided because the Father has sown in her spiritual rays enabling her to hold the verities of wisdom.

IX. The order of reclining is so apportioned that the men sit by themselves on the right and the women by themselves on the left. (Philo, On the Contemplative Life 68f.; Loeb Classical Library, Philo, Vol. 9, p. 155)

Though each ascetic had her or his own small house and there spent most of the time studying and praying over allegorical interpretations of Scripture, all the members did come together every Sabbath, the men and women, to hear lectures by their (male) teachers. However, the meeting place partitioned the men and women from each other, or rather, the women from the men:

This common sanctuary in which they meet every seventh day is a double enclosure, one portion set apart for the men, the other for the women. For women too regularly make part of the audience with the same ardour and the same sense of their calling. The wall between the two chambers rises up from the ground to three or four cubits [four and a half to over six feet] built in the form of a breast work, while the space above up to the roof is left open This arrangement serves two purposes; the modesty becoming to the female sex is preserved, while the women sitting within ear-shot can easily follow what is said since there is nothing to obstruct the voice of the speaker. (Philo, On the Contemplative Life 32ff.; Loeb Classical Library, Philo, Vol. 9, pp. 131, 133)

Here is exhibited a mingling of Jewish and Hellenistic influences -which one would expect in the then perhaps most flourishing of Hellenistic cities (founded by Alexander the Great), which was at the same time perhaps the then most flourishing Jewish city in the world. The men and the women were separated in the synagogue, according to the Jewish custom (see §106); even today one can see in the synagogue in the very Orthodox section of Jerusalem, Mea Shearim, the same kind of wall (though higher) between the room for men and the room for women, with a separate entrance for each room; a somewhat similar division exists at the Western or “Wailing” Wall. The separation in the synagogue meant, of course, that the women could only listen, not speak, in the services. However, it was untraditional that the women should have committed themselves to the life of this sect with a devotion equal to that of the men, for that meant devoting the greatest part of their lives to being in their cells studying allegorical interpretations of the Scriptures; women traditionally did not devote themselves, like men, to a study of the Scriptures (see §106), whereas in Hellenist Mystery religions and the Egyptian Isis cult women did take prominent and even priestly roles (see p. 17).

There was, however, one regular occasion when the female Therapeutae did take an active part in a religious service. Every seventh week there was a sacred feast day with a meal. (Some scholars, e.g., Colson, suggest that the feast did not take place every fifty days, but rather once a year at Pentecost.) The men would recline on one side of the table and the women on the other; with the meal there were readings, prayers, and hymn-singing-and the women participated in the latter. Afterward the men and the women grouped themselves in two separate choirs and sang in alternating fashion, accompanied with various hand and body movements, like a sacred dance. At the end the men and women mixed to form a single choir. Thus they prayed, sang, and danced, filled with pious enthusiasm, until morning, when they returned to their cells.

XI. After the supper they bold the sacred vigil which is conducted in the following way. They rise up all together and standing in the middle of the refectory form themselves first into two choirs, one of men and one of women, the leader and precentor chosen for each being the most honored amongst them and also the most musical. Then they sing hymns to God composed of many measures and set to many melodies, sometimes chanting together, sometimes taking up the harmony antiphonally, hands and feet keeping time in accompaniment, and rapt with enthusiasm reproduce sometimes the lyrics of the procession, sometimes of the halt and of the wheeling and counter-wheeling of a choric dance.

Then when each choir has separately done its own part in the feast, having drunk as in the Bacchic rites of the strong wine of God’s love they mix and both together become a single choir, a copy of the choir set up of old beside the Red Sea in honor of the wonders there wrought.... This wonderful sight and experience, an act transcending word and thought and hope, so filled with ecstasy both men and women that forming a single choir they sang hymns of thanksgiving to God their Saviour, the men led by the prophet Moses and the women by the Prophetess Miriam.

It is on this model above all that the choir of the Therapeutae of either sex, note in response to note and voice to voice, the treble of the women blending with the bass of the men, create an harmonious concert, music in the truest sense. Lovely are the thoughts, lovely the words and worthy of reverence the choristers, and the end and aim of thoughts, words and choristers alike is piety. Thus they continue till dawn, drunk with this drunkenness in which there is no shame, then not with heavy heads or drowsy eyes but more alert and wakeful than when they came to the banquet, they stand with their faces and whole body turned to the cast and when they see the sun rising they stretch their hands up to heaven and pray for bright days and knowledge of the truth and the power of keen sighted thinking. And after the prayers they depart each to his private sanctuary once more to ply the trade and till the field of their wonted philosophy. (Philo, On the Contemplative Life 83-89; Loeb Classical Library, Philo, Vol. 9, pp. 165-169)

Johannes Leipoldt noted that this seven-week feast of the Therapeutae had all the characteristics of a Greek Mystery religion feast, clearly reflecting the influence of Hellenism. He continued:

Then the Greeks reflected a past fateful event by imitation, men and women participated equally-in Mystery religions something accepted as obvious. When the Therapeutae take this over they may not exclude the women Therapeutae, so much more so may they not since in the Old Testament model the prophetess Miriam steps forward so decisively. Hence, one may not view the participation of the women Therapeutae in the worship service as indicative of the Jewish manner [but rather of the Greek manner]. (Johannes Leipoldt, Die Frau in der antiken Welt und im Urchristentum, p. 86; Leipzig, 1954)

It should be noted that if, despite all the massive Hellenistic influences present in Alexandria and among the Therapeutae, the women were still so strictly separated in the weekly synagogue service and relegated to listening, then the force of the Jewish custom must have been very strong.

Thus we find a blending of Jewish and Greek traditions among the Therapeutae. As far as women are concerned, the stronger influence of Greek customs-in contrast to the apparently relatively weaker Greek influence among the Essenes-worked to their advantage: they were full-fledged members, “having adopted the same sect with equal (to the men) deliberation and decision”; they spent their time studying the Scriptures; they took an active part in the sacred banquet, vigil, and dance every seven weeks. None of these things was true of the position of women in the Essenes. Nevertheless, all women Therapeutae were segregated in the Sabbath synagogue, did not have the right to speak there, and in other ways appeared subordinate to men, which was not the case with women in many contemporary Greek Mystery religions. The misogynism of much of contemporary Palestinian Judaism seems to have been greatly modified by Greek influence in the Therapeutae, though we know from other evidence that this modifying influence on the restrictions in the lives of married Jewish women in Egypt was not so effective (see §106).

§96. Ambivalent Rabbinic Attitudes Toward Women

In the rabbinic writings there are a number of positive evaluations of women. For example, “It was taught: He who has no wife dwells without good, without help, without joy, without blessing, and without atonement” (Genesis Rabbah 18, 2). There is a series of sayings gathered together in one place in the Talmud, mostly concerning the sadness caused by the death, or divorce, of one’s wife: “Rabbi Alexandri said: The world is darkened for him whose wife has died in his days [i.e., predeceased him].... Rabbi Jose ben Hanina said: His steps grow short.... Rabbi Johanan also said: He whose first wife has died (is grieved as much) as if the destruction of the Temple had taken place in his days.... Rabbi Samuel ben Nahman said: For him who divorces the first wife, the very altar sheds tears” (Talmud bSanhedrin 22a).

Two things should be kept in mind in evaluating these positive statements. First, as with the Wisdom literature noted above, almost all the positive things said about women by the rabbis are not about women as such, but rather about women as they are related to men, namely, as wives. In fact, at the same place in the Talmud as the above appreciative statements about the loss of one’s wife, it is also stated: “Rabbi Samuel ben Unya said in the name of Rab: A woman (before marriage) is a shapeless lump, and concludes a covenant only with him who transforms her (into) a (useful) vessel” (Talmud bSanhedrin 22b). Secondly, although a good wife is highly valued and receives deep affection, this appreciation very frequently is expressed, as in the Wisdom literature, in terms of what the wife does for the husband, and family. This attitude was expressed well by a modern rabbi writing on the subject of the Jewish woman:

Only the life of the woman contains even more renunciation. Her whole life is a self-denying devotion to the welfare of others, especial of her husband and children. The true woman is the performance of duty personified.... Renunciation, sacrifice for the joy of her husband and children becomes her joy.... This will-subordination of the wife to the husband is a necessary condition of the unity which man and wife should form together. The subordination cannot be the other way about, since the man ... has to carry forward the divine and human messages. (Samson Raphael Hirsch, Judaism Eternal, Vol. 2, pp. 57f.; London: Soncino Press, 1959)

In addition to the laudatory statements already mentioned, the ancient rabbinic literature also contains the following rabbinic teachings which are likewise in praise of women, or rather, of wives and marriage. “Rabbi Eleazar said: Any man who has no wife is no proper man,” that is, as Rabbi Eliezer is recorded in the same place as having taught: “Anyone who does not engage in the propagation of the race is as though he shed blood.” Also in the same place Rabbi Hiyya taught about wives: “It is sufficient for us that they rear up our children and deliver us from sin,” i.e., satisfy the male’s sexual drive within the “ethically acceptable” context of marriage. “Our Rabbis taught: Concerning a man who loves his wife as himself, who honors her more than himself . . .” “Rabbi Hama ben Hanina stated: “As soon as a man takes a wife his sins are stopped up,” that is, concupiscence is “legitimately” channeled. A man was advised: “Be quick in buying land, but deliberate in taking a wife. Come down a step in choosing your wife”; since the wife was to be in the subordinate position it was thought important that she come from a lower social position. In the same place in the Talmud there is also the appreciative saying: “Happy is the husband of a beautiful wife; the number of his days shall be double,” which is immediately followed by a warning against all other beautiful women: “Turn away thy eyes from (thy neighbor’s) charming wife lest thou be caught in her net. Do not turn in to her husband to mingle with him wine and strong drink; for, through the form of a beautiful woman, many were destroyed and a mighty host are all her slain.” (All these quotations are from Talmud bYebamoth 63a-b.)

If a good wife was appreciated by the rabbis, a bad wife was equally unappreciated:

Raba said: (If one has a) bad wife it is a meritorious act to divorce her.... Raba further stated: A bad wife ... (should be given) a rival at her side [that is, a second wife should be taken] .... Raba further stated: A bad wife is as troublesome as a very rainy day; for it is said, A continual dropping on a very rainy day and a contentious woman are alike.... How baneful is a bad wife with whom Gehenna is compared.... Behold I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape. Rabbi Nahuan said in the name of Rabbah ben Abbuha: This refers to a bad wife, the amount of whose kethubah is large. (Talmud bYebamoth 63a-b)

In arguing for the high estimation of women held by the ancient rabbis, some scholars refer to the rabbinic teaching about the beneficent or maleficent influence a wife has on a husband:

It once happened that a pious man was married to a pious woman, and they did not produce children. Said they, “We are of no use to the Holy One, blessed he He,” whereupon they arose and divorced each other. The former went and married a wicked woman, and she made him wicked, while the latter went and married a wicked man, and made him righteous. This proves that all depends on the woman. (Genesis Rabbah 17, 7)

However, the fact that this truly appreciative story about a pious wife is immediately followed by a whole series of rather deprecatory statements about women in general somewhat modifies the force of. that story as evidence of high appreciation of women by the rabbis as a group (although clearly individual rabbis at least at times expressed themselves more positively about women):

And why must a woman use perfume, while a man does not need perfume?... And why has a woman a shrill voice but not a man? ... And why does a man go out bareheaded while a woman goes out with her head covered?  She is like one who has done wrong and is ashamed of people; therefore she goes out with her head covered. Why do they (the women) walk in front of the corpse (at a funeral)? Because they brought death into the world, they therefore walk in front of the corpse.... And why was the precept of menstruation given to her? Because she shed the blood of Adam (by causing death), therefore was the precept of menstruation given to her. And why was the precept of the “dough” given to her? Because she corrupted Adam, who was the dough of the world, therefore was the precept of dough given to her, And why was the precept of the Sabbath lights given to her? Because she extinguished the soul of Adam, therefore was the precept of the Sabbath lights given to her. (Genesis Rabbah 17, 8)

Similarly weakened, or at least put in an ambivalent light as evidence concerning the rabbis as a group, are several sets of rabbinic teachings favorable toward wives:

Rabbi Helbo said: One must always observe the honor due to his wife, because blessings rest on a man’s home only on account of his wife.... Thus did Raba say to the townspeople of Mahuza, Honor your wives, that ye may be enriched.... Rab said: One should always be heedful of wronging his wife, for since her tears are frequent she is quickly hurt. (Talmud Balm Mezia 59a)

These are all truly sensitive sentiments. But in the same place the same “Rab also said: He who follows his wife’s counsel will descend into Gehenna.”  At this the Talmud adds the part which Rabbi Hirsch in the above-quoted book only partially cited as proof of the rabbis’ high estimation of women: “Rabbi Papa objected to Abaye: But people say, If your wife is short, bend down and hear her whisper!” He did not write the following resolution of what the rabbis saw as a contradiction between the teachings of Rab and Papa just quoted:

There is no difficulty: the one refers to general matters; the other to household affairs. Another version: the one refers to religious matters, the other to secular questions. (Talmud bBaba Mezia 59a)

Apparently the translator of the English Soncino edition was somewhat embarrassed by this teaching, for be noted: “A man should certainly consult his wife on the latter, but not on the former,-not a disparagement of woman; her activities lying mainly in the home,” which meant that rabbinic “high estimation of women” was here limited to a valuing of women as housekeepers.

The noble statement: “Who is wealthy? ... He who has a wife comely in deeds” (Talmud bShabbath 25b), takes on a somewhat intimidating quality when it is realized that it was made by Rabbi Akiba, who allegedly allowed his wife to spend twenty-four years in living widowhood while he studied Torah, and who was “the founder of the peculiar institution of married ‘monasticism.’... After marriage they would devote themselves completely to their studies while their wives supported them” (Louis Finkelstein, Akiba: Scholar, Saint and Martyr, p. 80; Meridian Books, 1962-not unlike what happens in the Mea Shearim section of Jerusalem today). It was Akiba who also taught that a man may divorce his wife merely on the grounds that “he finds another woman more beautiful than she is” (Mishnah Gittin 9, 10).

It also says in the Talmud: “The Holy One... endowed the woman with more understanding then the man” (Talmud bNiddah 45b). However, since this statement comes in the midst of a discussion about the age at which vows can be made and is used as an argument that girls can make vows a year earlier than boys because they mature sooner, its intended meaning seems to be limited to this particular case. This is clearly confirmed in an early midrash where the very same discussion is taken up and carried further as follows: “Some reverse it, because a woman generally stays home, whereas a man goes out into the streets and learns understanding from people” (Genesis Rabbah 18, 1).

Rabbi Hirsch in the above-quoted book also notes that the Talmud says that women are promised greater bliss-after death-but he does not note what it then says about how women are to merit this bliss. The following first sentence Rabbi Hirsch refers to; the rest he does not:

[Our Rabbis taught]: Greater is the promise made by the Holy One, blessed he He, to the women than to the men; for it says, “Rise up, ye women that are at ease; ye confident daughters, give ear unto my speech.” Rab said to Rabbi Hiyya: Whereby do women earn merit? By making their children go to the synagogue to learn Scripture and their husbands to the Beth Hamidrash to learn Mishnah, and waiting for their husbands till they return from the Beth Hamidrash. (Talmud bBerakhoth 17a)

The latter half of this passage would seem to dilute at least somewhat the strength of the former half as evidence of the rabbis high estimation of women.


As noted at the outset, the main purpose of this book is to draw together and analyze the positive statements about women in the Bible and immediately related materials. However, in order not to give a grossly distorted picture of the status of women in the Bible, it was felt imperative that not only should the positive and ambivalent materials on women be presented in detail; also at least a sample survey of the negative materials should be set forth. No attempt at thoroughness will be made, as that lies outside the scope of this book, and because this negative side, which in fact in some areas is so much more predominant than the positive, has already been amply presented elsewhere (see, e.g., Phyllis Bird, “Images of Women in the Old Testament,” in Rosemary Radford Ruether, ed., Religion and Sexism, pp. 41-88; Simon & Schuster, 1974; and Leonard Swidler, Women in Judaism). What follows will be a brief survey first of the negative material on women in the Hebrew Bible, Apocrypha, and Pseudepigrapha, and then of the early rabbinic literature.


§97. Women at the Disposal of Men

To begin with, women were almost inevitably subordinate creatures in Hebrew society, coming first under the control of the father, and passing from the father’s dominance to the husband’s. For example, the wife is listed along with the rest of the husband’s property in the Decalogue, but not vice versa:

You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, nor his male or female slave, nor his ox or ass, nor anything else that belongs to him. (Ex 20:17)

Children were almost totally at the disposal of the father, but daughters were so in a special way. The daughter and the son could be sold into slavery, but after six years of service all male Hebrew slaves had to be freed by Hebrew masters. However, “if a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not regain her liberty like male slaves” (Ex 21:7). A more startling sexual disposal of daughters is found in the story of Lot and his daughters. Lot met two men, on the road and invited them to spend the night at his house.

The house was surrounded by the men of the town, the men of Sodom both young and old, all the people without exception. Calling to Lot they said, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Send them out to us!” The men of Sodom wanted to have sex with them. Lot came out to them at the door, and having closed the door behind him said, I beg you, my brothers, do no such wicked thing. Listen, I have two daughters who are virgins. I am ready to send them out to you, to treat as it pleases you. But as for the men, do nothing to them.” (Gen 19:4-8)

A similar story occurs in the Book of judges where the visiting man himself, a Levite no less shoves his concubine out the door to the mob to save himself; she is raped and beaten to death! A particularly poignant part of the story is that the Levite’s concubine had run away from her “husband” back to her home. After four months he went to fetch her and bring her back. It was on the first night’s journey back that she met her grim fate:

As they were at their meal, some men from the town, scoundrels, came crowding together round the house; they battered on the door and said to the old man, the master of the house, “Send out the man who has come into your house! We want to have sex with him!” Then the master of the house went out to them and said, “No, my brothers, I implore you, do not commit this crime. This man has become my guest; do not commit such an infamy against this man. Behold, here are my virgin daughter and his concubine. I bring them out now. Ravish them and do with them what you will, but do not commit such an infamy against this man. But the men would not listen to him, so the Levite seized his concubine and put her outside with them. And they raped and abused her all night long and did not stop until morning. At dawn the woman came and fell down at the door of the old man’s house, where her husband (‘adon) was. She was still there when daylight came. Her husband got up that morning, and when he opened the door to go on his way, he found his concubine lying in front of his house with her bands reaching for the door. He said, “Get up. Let’s go.” But there was no answer. So he put her body across his donkey and began his journey. Having reached his house, he picked up his knife, took bold of his concubine, and limb by limb cut her into twelve pieces; then he sent her all through the land of Israel. (Judg 19:22-29)

In the following passages the perpetrators of the crime, that is, the whole Hebrew tribe of Benjamin, were severely punished. But nothing happens, or is even said, to the Levite who shoved his concubine out to her death or the father who offered up his daughter to the same fate. Women were almost totally at the disposal of men in that society.

This is borne out further by the fact that the Hebrew verb b’l, meaning at root, “to master,” is at times used to mean “the man marries” (e.g., Deut 21:13 and Jer 31:32). The noun form, ba’al, at root means “master”: fifteen times it is used as “husband.” That is, the wife addresses her husband as ba’al, “master” (e.g., Ex 21:4, 22; Deut 22:22; 24:4; 2 Sam 11:26; Esth 1:17, 20; Prov 12:4; 31:11, 23, 28; Joel 1:8), or as Lord, ‘adon, as in Judg 19:26 just quoted, and elsewhere.

§98. Women Inheriting

Normally a woman could not inherit property in Israel. A daughter could inherit from her father only if there were no son (Num 27: 1-11), but she had to marry within the clan so the property would not move out of it (Num 36:1-9); the women simply served as blood links to pass property from male to male within the family line. The wife normally received nothing, but was always dependent on a man for her support: first on her father, then on her husband, then when a widow on her son, or on her father again if she had no son-or into dire straits, as with Naomi of the Book of Ruth. It was because of this complete financial dependence of women that the prophets so often railed against the oppression of widows, for widows were normally of themselves helpless-this is why Judith as a widow would normally he thought of as the most helpless of the helpless (women), and through this weakest of all possible instruments Yahweh saves his people (see §88).

§99. Sexual Transgressions

Since in ancient society women were thought of as men’s possessions (e.g., as noted just above, in the Decalogue it was forbidden to covet a neighbor’s wife but not a neighbor’s husband, because in this regard a wife was not a person but a possession-cf. Jeffrey Howard Togay, “Adultery,” Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. 2, col. 313), in patriarchal days it was the husband’s right, or at least the head of the family’s right, to punish the adulterous woman (see Gen 38:24, where Judah ordered Tamar burned). “It was only when adultery was elevated to the rank of a grave offense against God as well that the husband was required to resort to the priests or to the courts” (Chaim Hermann Cohn, “Adultery,” Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. 2, col. 315).

There was no punishment for the man having sex unless a married or betrothed woman was involved. In adultery both the adulterer and the adulteress were to be executed (because the husband’s property rights had been violated). Of course since only the woman could become pregnant, she alone would be caught many more times than the man-and punished. However, the Book of Proverbs indicated that at least for the adulterer it was possible to 44 compound” his offense, that is, pay the wronged husband a sum of money in lieu of undergoing the death penalty (Prov 6:3 5). Since this portion of the Book of Proverbs was probably composed only in the third or fourth century B.C.E., this may be an indication of the lessening of the rigor of the earlier biblical injunctions. According to the available evidence, this lessening of the death penalty was apparently applied only to the man; the woman, who was often not likely to have any money available anyhow, was presumably still put to death.

The usual means of execution was by stoning, but in preexilic days it may at times have been different for adulteresses. In a metaphorical description of wayward Jerusalem as an adulterous woman by the prophet Ezekiel, which may or may not have any historical referent, stripping and exposure is seen as one form of punishment:

I will gather all those lovers to whom you made advances.... I will put you on trial for adultery.... Then I will hand you over to them.... They will strip your clothes off, take away your splendid ornaments, and leave you naked and exposed. They will bring up the mob against you and stone you, they will back you to pieces with their swords ... and many women shall see it. (Ezek 16:37-41)

That women were also burned for adultery, as was required in the case of a priest’s daughter (Lev 21:9), as late as the first century C.E. (probably 62 C.E. is testified to in Mishnah and Talmud.

Rabbi Eliezer ben Zadok said: It happened once that a priest’s daughter committed adultery and they encompassed her with bundles of branches and burnt her. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 7, 3)

Rabbi Eleazar ben Zadok said, “I remember when I was a child riding on my father’s shoulder that a priest’s adulterous daughter was brought (to the place of execution) surrounded by faggots, and burnt.” (Talmud bSanhedrin 52b)

Still later, in late third-century Babylon, a similar execution was reported:

Imarta the daughter of Tali, a priest, committed adultery. Therefore Rabbi Hama ben Tobiah had her surrounded by faggots and burnt. (Talmud bSanhedrin 52b)

Another instance in the ancient biblical law concerning sexual immorality where the woman was again the victim of a double moral standard is found in Deut 22:13-21. There, if a man claimed that his wife was not a virgin, the father of the bride was expected to bring out a garment with bloodstains resulting from the breaking of the hymen during the first marital intercourse and “spread the garment before the elders of the town.” If the elders were satisfied, they fined the husband one hundred pieces of silver-payable to the father!-and he would not be allowed to divorce the girl ever. However, if the elders were not satisfied with the evidence-the obtaining of which must have presented no little difficulty at times-“They shall bring her out of the door of her father’s house and the men of her town shall stone her to death.” The young bride, often less than a teen-ager, was in a no-win situation: if she lost her case, she was put to death; if she won, she had to live forever with-under-a husband who was furious enough with her to try to have her killed, but was frustrated and had to pay a huge fine on her account. On the other band, no man suffered a penalty for his lack of virginity.

All of these punishments took place only if there was hard evidence that adultery had occurred, usually including the testimony of two witnesses. However, even simply on the basis of a suspicion, or only as the result of a fit of jealousy, a husband could force his wife to submit to an extremely humiliating and terrorizing trial by ordeal. The priestly portion of the Book of Numbers (fifth century B.C.E.), i.e., Num 5:11-31, is the only specific account in the Bible of trial by ordeal. The essential prescriptions there are as follows:

When in such a case a fit of jealousy comes over the husband which causes him to suspect his wife, she being in fact defiled; or when, on the other band, a fit of jealousy comes over a husband which causes him to suspect his wife, when she is not in fact defiled; then in either case, the husband shall bring his wife to the priest.... The priest shall bring her forward and set her before the Lord. He shall take clean water in an earthenware vessel, and shall take dust from the floor of the Tabernacle and add it to the water. He shall set the woman before the Lord, uncover her head ... [He then tells her in a formal manner that if she is innocent, she will be unharmed.] “But if you have gone astray,... may the Lord make an example of you among your people in adjurations and in swearing of oaths by bringing upon you miscarriage and untimely birth; and this water that brings out the truth shall enter your body ....” The priest shall write these curses on a scroll and wash them off into the water of contention; he shall make the woman drink the water that brings out the truth, and the water shall enter her body... If she has let herself become defiled and has been unfaithful to her husband, then when the priest makes her drink the water that brings out the truth and the water has entered her body, she will suffer a miscarriage arid untimely birth and her name will become an example in adjuration among her kin. But if the woman has not let herself become defiled and is pure, then her innocence is established and she will bear her child. (Num 5:14-28)

Either way, the experience is horrible for the woman, but “no guilt will attach to the husband, but the woman shall bear the penalty of her guilt” (Num 5:31).

§100. Polygyny

Polyandry was not explicitly forbidden in the Hebrew Bible-it was never considered as a possible choice. A renowned Orthodox Jewish scholar, Louis Epstein, noted that the Bible generally assumed a patrilineal family organization among the early Hebrews and that consequently marriage represented acquisition, ownership on the part of the husband. Such a marriage was called ba’al marriage, where the husband was the owner of his wife in the same sense as he owned his slaves. “Polygamy is the logical corollary of ba’al marriage, for as one may own many slaves, so he may espouse many wives” (Louis M. Epstein, Marriage Laws in the Bible and the Talmud, p. 7; Harvard University Press, 1942). Epstein further stated that though upon their return to the Land of Canaan from Egypt the Hebrews did not at first take up polygamy:

With better times, however, even the masses indulged in polygamy, and it is so reported especially of the tribe of Issachar. In that formative period, it seems bigamy became common among the Hebrews. Noble and wealth families had full polygamy and larger or smaller harems, but the common folk were satisfied with two wives.... We find the teachings of the Pharisees a continuation of the biblical attitude to polygamy, and the teaching of the rabbis thereafter an extension of the pharisaic tradition. This tradition accepted polygamy as legally permissible and did not even imply a policy of monogamy as did the Church; for while the Church shifted its center to the West, where monogamy was the rule, the Synagogue continued in its oriental setting, where polygamy was native. Any resistance to polygamy in talmudic times as in biblical days was created by life itself and was not formulated into law.... The Jewish family during that period was very like its counterpart in the biblical period. Rulers permitted themselves plural wives; bigamy was not infrequent, but the people as a rule practiced monogamy. (Epstein, Marriage Laws in the Bible and the Talmud, pp. 12-17)

§101. Divorce

Since in Israel the man possessed the woman and not vice versa, the man could dis-possess, that is, divorce, the woman, but she could not divorce him. The Orthodox Israeli scholar Ze’ev Falk notes that in ancient Israelite days divorce was “an arbitrary, unilateral, private act on the part of the husband and consisted of the wife’s expulsion from the husband’s house” (Ze’ev Falk, Hebrew Law in Biblical Times, p. 154; Jerusalem: Wahrmann Books, 1964), the very term usually used to refer to a divorced wife being gerushah, “expelled.” “At a later stage (but before Deut 24:1; Is 50:1; and Jer 3:8) the husband was required to deliver a bill of divorce to his wife at her expulsion” (ibid.). The whole ceremony of the man banding the wife a writ of divorce was done privately, before two witnesses, down through the early rabbinic period.

Already a number of decades before the beginning of the rabbinic period, and down through the time of the rabbinic writings, it was even considered obligatory to divorce a “bad wife,” though of course the opposite, the divorce of a bad husband, was not possible. In the midst of vitriolic misogynism Ben Sira stated the obligation clearly and forcefully:

A bad wife brings humiliation, downcast looks, and a wounded heart. Slack of hand and weak of knee is the man whose wife fails to make him happy. Woman is the origin of sin, and it is through her that we all die. Do not leave a leaky cistern to drip or allow a bad wife to say what she likes. If she does not accept your control, divorce her and send her away. (Ben Sira 25:23-26)

The basic expression in law of the divorce procedure is stated only indirectly in Deuteronomy:

Supposing a man has taken a wife and consummated the marriage; but she has not pleased him and he has found some impropriety [dabar erwat, literally, “a word of nakedness” or “shame”] of which to accuse her; so he has made out a writ of divorce for her and banded it to her and then dismissed her from his house. (Deut 24:1)

A dispute developed by the end of the Hebrew biblical period about how the term erwat was to be understood. Two rabbinic schools developed, one following Hillel and the other Shammai, both of whom lived in the first century B.C.E. (Akiba, who followed Hillel, lived in the late first and early second century C.E.). The Hillel-Akiba school won out:

The school of Shammai says: A man may not divorce his wife unless he has found something unseemly in her, for it is written, Because he hath found in her indecency in anything. And the school of Hillel says (he may divorce her) even if she spoiled a dish for him, for it is written, Because he hath found in her indecency in anything. Rabbi Akiba says: Even if he found another more beautiful than she, for it is written, And it shall be if she find no favor in his eyes. (Mishnah Gittin 9, 10)

§102. Religious Disabilities

Basically, laws in the Hebrew Bible were directed at men, which can be seen not only in the general use of the second-person masc line form for the verbs but also in a number of specific laws that inadvertently make the assumption clear:

You shall not afflict an widow or orphan. If you do, . . . then your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless. (Ex 22:22-24)

Women could not receive the sign of membership in the religious community, circumcision (Gen 17:10ff.). Only men could become priests. Women were not obliged by the law of Deut 16:16 to attend the three annual pilgrim feasts. This non-obligation of women grew with time, with the predictable result that many things women originally were not required to do, they eventually were required not to do. One modern Jewish scholar makes the same point bluntly:

A logical consequence of female exemption from the time-geared features Of the liturgical round is the ineligibility of women to take an active role in them, for example, as leaders of prayer for congregations including men. (Raphael Lowe, The Position of Women in Judaism, p. 44; London, 1966)

No information is available about the courts of the Temple built by Solomon in the tenth century B.C.E., or of the one built by Zerubbabel in the sixth century B.C.E. For its replacement, however, built by Herod starting in 19 B.C.E. and completely finished only in 64 C.E., six years before its destruction, we do have information from several sources. The outermost ring was the Court of the Gentiles, within which was the Court of the Women and within it the Court of Israel, into which only the men of Israel were admitted. The Court of the Women was nineteen steps above the Court of the Gentiles, but fifteen below the Court of Israel. Women were allowed in both the Gentiles’ court and the women’s court, but even this latter was further restricted:

Beforetime (the Court of the Women) was free of buildings, and (afterwards) they surrounded it with a gallery so that the women should observe from above and the men from below and that they should not mingle together. (Mishnah Middoth 2, 5)

If for those who no longer have the evil inclination the men must be separated from the women, how much more is that separation necessary for those who have not overcome the evil inclination at all. (Palestinian Talmud Sukka 55b, Le Talmud de Jerusalem, tr. by Moise Schwab, Vol. 6, pp. 43f.; Paris, 1883).

Moreover, the women were allowed to enter their own court only by certain gates, and indeed this privilege, as well as entrance to the Court of the Gentiles, was denied to them if they were within seven days following the end of their menstruation, or within forty days following the birth of a boy, or eighty days following the birth of a girl.

Each Jewish community in Palestine and throughout the Diaspora usually had at least one synagogue, an institution whose origins go back to the time of Ezra, and possibly to the exile. As a building, the synagogue was a meeting place for prayer and for study of the Law; at least by the time of the Roman emperor Augustus the synagogues tended to have two separate areas: the sabbateion for worship services and the andron for lectures on and discussion of the Law by the scribes and their students. The latter room, as the name makes clear, was exclusively for males. But even in the prayer hall the sexes were separated, either by some sort of barrier or grillwork or moderately high wall, as with the Therapeutae discussed above; or in a separate adjoining room, as in the synagogue of Delos (from the first century B.C.E.); or, later, in a gallery around the two sides and the rear, complete with a separate entrance, as can be seen from the oldest extant ruins in Palestine, those at Capernaum. The latter stem from the third century C.E.; presumably all earlier synagogues were destroyed by the Romans after the rebellions of 70 C.E. and 135 C.E. For details and bibliography, see Leonard Swidler, Women in Judaism, pp. 88-91. At present there is some questioning about how  early this segregation took place in the synagogue.

§103. Impure Menstruous Women

As the Encyclopaedia Judaica points out, the state of ritual impurity “is considered hateful to God, and man is to take care in order not to find himself thus excluded from his divine presence” (Vol. 13, col. 1405). In Lev 11:43-44, purity and holiness are clearly linked together:

You shall not contaminate yourselves through any crawling creature. You shall not defile yourselves with them and make yourselves unclean by them. For I am Yahweh your God; you shall make yourselves holy and keep yourselves holy, because I am holy. (Lev 11:43-44)

The consequence of ritual impurity could be dire in the extreme:

A polluted person is always in the wrong. He has developed some wrong condition or simply crossed some line which should not have been crossed and this displacement unleashes danger for some. (Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, quoted in Rachel Adler “Tum’ah and Toharah,” The Jewish Woman. Response, 18, Summer 1973, p. 118)

While the Temple in Jerusalem yet existed, the concern of the priestly class about ritual purity became so overriding that it was said: “To render a knife impure was more serious to them than bloodshed” (Tosephta Yoma 1, 12). In fact, the Mishnah notes that “if a priest served (at the Altar) in a state of uncleanness his brethren priests did not bring him to the court, but the young men among the priests took him outside the Temple Court and split open his brain with clubs” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 9, 6). At the same time it must be remembered that by the beginning of the Common Era, “the prohibition against contracting impurity and the obligation of purity ex. tend also to all Jews and to all localities” (Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. 13, col. 1411).

There were three main causes of impurity: leprosy, dead bodies of certain animals, and particularly human corpses, and issue from sexual organs (these laws were based mainly on Leviticus 11-17 composed by priestly writers in the fifth century B.C.E.). Of the three, the last is the most important and frequent, and clearly it is the woman that is mostly involved. If a man has an emission of semen outside of intercourse, he is unclean; but if a man has intercourse with a woman, both are unclean-in both instances, however, only until the evening of the day of the emission.

The Levitical laws concerning the impurity of women are much more restrictive. When a woman has a menstruous discharge of blood, she is unclean for seven days, or as long as it lasts, whichever is longer. In addition, whoever she touches becomes unclean for a day, as does anything she touches. Further,

Whoever touches anything on which she sits shall wash his clothes, bathe in water and remain unclean till evening. If he is on the bed or seat where she is sitting, by touching it he shall become unclean till evening. If a man goes so far as to have intercourse with her and any of her discharge gets on him, then he shall be unclean for seven days, and every bed on which he lies down shall be unclean. (Lev 15:23-24)

In the latter case a further, more severe punishment is specified: “If a man lies with a woman during her monthly period and brings shame upon her, he has exposed her discharge and she has uncovered the source of her discharge; they shall both be cut off from their people” (Lev 20:18). In the end, the biblical threat against disregarding these laws concerning ritual purity was dire: “In this way you shall warn the Israelites against uncleanness, in order that they may not bring uncleanness upon the Tabernacle where I dwell among them, and so die” (Lev 15:31). The young priests referred to above apparently took it upon themselves to be God’s executioners.

After giving birth, a woman was also considered unclean for a period of time and in need of still further “purification” for an even longer period. What is especially interesting is that both periods of “impurity” were twice as long if a girl was born than if a boy was which would seem to indicate that a girl was considered twice as defiling as a boy:

When a woman conceives and bears a male child, she shall be unclean for seven days; as in the period of her impurity through menstruation.... The woman shall wait for thirty-three days because her blood requires purification; she shall touch nothing that is holy, and shall not enter the sanctuary till her days of purification are completed. If she bears a female child, she shall be unclean for fourteen days as for her menstruation and shall wait for sixty-six days. (Lev 12:2-5)

Originally, in biblical times, intercourse was forbidden only during the seven- or fourteen-day period after childbirth, but by rabbinic times there were many attempts to expand that restriction to the entire forty- and eighty-day periods-with substantial success.


§104. Pseudepigrapha

In the last century or two before the Common Era and in the first century C.E., Jewish writers poured out a large number of religious writings, often giving fictitious names as authors. Hence, such writings are referred to as pseudepigrapha. This literature continued the very negative attitude toward women that was found in the biblical Ecclesiastes and Ben Sira (see §§92 and 93).

In the Book of the Secrets of Enoch, probably written in the first century C.E., the author expresses the notion that Eve alone was the cause of death in humanity-a notion that would have to be read into and not out of the Genesis 3 account of the  Fall. This notion was part of the general atmosphere in the Judaism of that period which was apocalyptic, full of fears, anti-body, anti-sex, and anti-woman:

And I put sleep into him and he fell asleep. And I took from him a rib, and created him a wife, that death should come to him by his wife. (The Book of the Secrets of Enoch 30:17-18,(R. H. Charles, The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament. Oxford University Press, 1913, Vol. 2, p. 450)

Another Jewish book written about the same time, The Life of Adam and Eve, also lays the cause of death at the feet of Eve alone:

And Adam saith to Eve: “Eve, what hast thou wrought in us? Thou bast brought upon us great wrath which is death (lording it over all our race).” ... And Adam said to him [his son Seth]: “When God made us, me and your mother, through whom I also die...” (The Books of Adam and Eve, Charles, Vol. 2, pp. 145, 141)

In the Book of Jubilees, probably written at the end of the second century B.C.E., there is an extraordinary concern with fornication as the greatest of all sins (presumably surpassing thereby in gravity such sins as idolatry, murder, robbing the poor and helpless, etc.):

There is no greater sin than the fornication which they commit on earth. (Book of Jubilees 33:20, Charles, Vol. 2)

The one to suffer most of all from such sins was the woman:

And if any woman or maid commit fornication amongst you, burn her with fire. (Book of Jubilees 20:4, Charles, Vol. 2)

There is no mention here of any punishment whatsoever to be meted out to the man involved. Such a fundamental grounding of evil in sex and meting out punishment to the woman alone tended to imply and further a misogynist attitude in males-and in females by way of self-hatred. That development becomes very clear in another Jewish book written at the same time.

The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs is likewise greatly concerned about fornication as

 the “mother of all evils” (Testament of Simeon 5:3). It warns that a man should not “gaze on the beauty of women” (Testament of Judah 17: 1), “lest he should pollute his mind with corruption” (Testament of Issachar 4:4). From this attitude of the need to avoid women out of fear, it is but a brief step to outright misogynism, of seeing women as such as evil; every woman leads the essentially “good” man down to evil. The author takes that step:

For evil are women, my children; and since they have no power or strength over man, they use wiles by outward attractions, that they may draw him to themselves. And whom they cannot bewitch by outward attractions, him they overcome by craft. (Testament of Reuben 5:1-2, Charles, Vol. 2)

Somewhat as in Ben Sira, the author proceeds to describe how  women in general go about spreading their evil:

By means of their adornment ... they instil the poison, and then through the accomplished act they take them captive. For a woman cannot force a man openly, but by a harlot’s bearing she beguiles him. (Testament of Reuben 5:3-4, Charles, Vol. 2)

The “logical” conclusion is then drawn by the author, namely, that all women should reject attractive clothing, jewelry, and cosmetics:

Command your wives and your daughters, that they adorn not their heads and faces [and woe to the woman who nevertheless does], because every woman who useth these wiles bath been reserved for eternal punishment. (Testament of Reuben 5:5, Charles, Vol. 2)

In the end the principle, which was already seen in Ben Sira, was put forth, namely, that every woman is a nymphomaniac. It is expressed in the Testament of Reuben in the strongest possible form:

Moreover, concerning them (women), the angel of the Lord told me, and taught me, that women are overcome by the spirit of fornication more than men, and in their heart they plot against men. (Testament of Reuben 5:3, Charles, Vol. 2)

Conclusion? “Guard your senses from every woman. And command the women likewise not to associate with men” (Testament of Reuben 6:1-2, Charles, Vol. 2). Contact between men and women, 41 even though the ungodly deed be not wrought,” was seen as “an irremediable disease” for the women and as a “destruction of Beliar and an eternal reproach” for the men (Testament of Reuben 6:3-4, Charles, Vol. 2).

§105. Essene and Qumran Misogynism

The Essenes were a Jewish sect that probably originated in the second century B.C.E. and died out in the second century C.E. Some of them were married, but some lived a celibate, monastic kind of life. Philo, a Jewish contemporary (first century C.E.), described the attitude of the celibate Essenes toward women:

They eschew marriage because they clearly discern it to be the sole or the principal danger to the maintenance of the communal life, as well as because they particularly practice continence. For no Essene takes a wife, because a woman (gyne) is a selfish creature, excessively jealous and an adept at beguiling the morals of her husband and seducing him by her continued impostures. For by the fawning part like talk which she practices and the other ways in which she plays her a  an actress on the stage she first ensnares the sight and bearing, and when these subjects as it were have been duped she cajoles the sovereign mind. And if the children come, filled with the spirit of arrogance and bold speaking she gives utterance with more audacious hardihood to things which before she hinted covertly and under disguise, and casting off all shame she compels him to commit actions which are all hostile to the life of fellowship. For he who is either fast bound in the love lures of his wife or under the stress of nature makes his children his first care ceases to be the same to the others and unconsciously has become a different no and passed from freedom into slavery. (Philo, Hypothetica 11, 14-17)

The Jewish sect of Qumran, which has left us the Dead Sea Scrolls, flourished about the same time as the Essenes and has been identified with them by many scholars. In any case, the misogynist pattern is continued:

The association of women with trouble-making belongs quite naturally to the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament. At Qumran, not only the Old Testament Wisdom literature, but also Ben Sira and even properly Essene Wisdom texts were copied; and one of the unpublished texts from Cave IV attests, among other things, that the sapiential depreciation of women was not forgotten but developed startlingly. (John Strugnell, “Flavius Josephus and the Essenes: Antiquities XVIII.18-22,” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 77, 1958, p. 110)

The earlier descriptions of the ways of prostitutes from Proverbs and elsewhere, or indeed any description of the seductive ways of women in ancient Jewish literature, is far outstripped by this Essene diatribe. There is obviously a fascination here with that forbidden thing, sex, and its personification, woman; but since it is forbidden, there is also expressed a deep hatred of the unattainable, woman, here in the form of a harlot. Here is the fountainhead of misogynism:

The harlot utters vanities,

and [...] errors;

She seeks continually [to] sharpen [her] words,

[...]she mockingly flatters

and with emptiness] to bring altogether into derision.

Her heart’s perversion prepares wantonness,

and her emotions [...].

In perversion they seized the fouled (organs) of passion,

they descended the pit of her legs to act wickedly,

and behave with the guilt of [transgression

...] the foundations of darkness,

the sins in her skirts are many.

Her [...] is the depths of the night,

and her clothes [...]corruption,.

Her garments are the shades of twilight,

and her adornments are touched with corruption.

Her beds are couches of corruption,

[...] depths of the Pit.

Her lodgings are beds of darkness,

and in the depths of the nigh[t] are her [do]minions.

From the foundations of darkness she takes her dwelling,

and she resides in the tents of the underworld,

in the midst of everlasting fire,

and she has no inheritance (in the midst of) among all who gird themselves with light.

She is the foremost of all the ways of iniquity;

Alas! ruin shall be to all who possess her,

And desolation to a[ll] who take bold of her.

For her ways are the ways of death,

and her path[s] are the roads to sin;

her tracks lead astray to iniquity,

and her paths are the guilt of transgression.

Her gates are the gates of death,

in the opening of her house it stalks.

To Sheol a[l]l [...] will return,

and all who possess her will go down to the Pit,

She lies in wait in secret places,

[...] all [...].

In the city’s broad places she displays herself,

and in the town gates she sets herself,

and there is none to distur[b her] from [...].

Her eyes glance keenly hither and thither,

and she wantonly raises her eyelids

to seek out a righteous man an lead him astray,

and a perfect man to make him stumble;

upright men to divert (their) path,

and those chosen for righteousness from keeping the commandment;

those sustained with to make fools of them with wantonness,

and those who walk uprightly to change the st[atute];

to make the humble rebel from God,

and to turn their steps from the ways of righteousness;

to bring presumptuousness [... ]

those not arraign[ed] in the tracks of uprightness;

to lead mankind astray in the ways of the Pit,

and to seduce by flatteries the sons of men. (John M. Allegro, with the collaboration of Arnold A. Anderson, Discoveries in the Judaean Desert of Jordan, Vol. 5, Qumrân Cave 4, pp. 82-84; Oxford University Press, 1968)


§106. Negative Rabbinic Attitudes Toward Women

The growth of Rabbinic Judaism out of the traditions of the scribes and the Pharisees in the last centuries before and the first century of the Common Era was discussed briefly above (see pp. 99ff.). Both the positive and the ambivalent aspects of Rabbinic Judaism’s attitudes toward women were detailed (see pp. 99ff. and §106). However, it must be noted that the status of women in Rabbinic Judaism is predominantly negative (for a thorough analysis, see Leonard Swidler, Women in Judaism). As indicated before, only a brief outline of the negative aspect of Rabbinic Judaism’s attitude toward women will be provided here.

The heart of Judaism is the study and living of Torah-the Law -and the differing status of men and women is expressed here quite explicitly, for women were all but forbidden to study the Scriptures (Torah). The first-century rabbi Eliezer put the point sharply:

Rather should the words of the Torah be burned than entrusted to a woman.... Whoever teaches his daughter the Torah is like one who teaches her obscenity. (Mishnah Sotah 3, 4)

In the vitally religious area of prayer, women were so little thought of as not to be given obligations of the same seriousness as men. For example, women, along with children and slaves, were not obliged to recite the Shema, the morning prayer, nor prayers at meals (Mishnah Berakhoth 3, 3). In fact, the Talmud states: “Let a curse come upon the man who [must needs have] his wife or children say grace for him” (Talmud bBerakhoth 20b).

In the daily prayers prescribed for Jewish males there is a threefold thanksgiving which graphically illustrated where women stood in Rabbinic Judaism:

Praised be God that he has not created me a gentile; praised be God that he has not created me a woman; praised be God that he has not created me an ignorant man. (Tosephta Berakhoth 7, 8)

Because of the blunt male superiority expressed in this prayer one might be tempted to discount it as a single hyperbolic statement of an obscure rabbi. But this is not the case. No less than three separate direct quotations of this prayer occur in three of the most ancient rabbinic collections (Tosephta Berakhoth 7, 8; Talmud pBerakhoth 13b; Talmud bMenakhoth 43b). The fact that this statement in not simply a teaching but rather a prayer increases its significance considerably. Moreover, it is not recommended as a once-a-year or occasional prayer, but rather as a daily prayer. In the Tosephta, Rabbi Judah recommends that this prayer be said daily. The Babylonian Talmud attributes the prayer to Rabbi Judah’s contemporary, Rabbi Meir (of the first part of the second century), who claims that he faithfully passed on what he learned from Rabbi Akiba, a first-century rabbi.

It should also be noted that there are three commandments directed specifically to women, which result in the following dire consequences if they are disregarded, according to the earliest rabbinical document, the Mishnah:

For three transgressions do women die in childbirth: for heedlessness of the laws concerning their menstruation, the dough-offering (hallah), and the lighting of the (Sabbath) lamp. (Mishnah Shabbath 2, 6)

The reasons given for these three commands-in no less than four ancient sources: Tosephta Shabbath 2, 19(112); Talmud pShabbath 2, 5b, 34; Talmud bShabbath 3 1 b; Genesis Rabbah 17, 8-all lead back to the charge that Eve caused the death of Adam (as did also the Life of Adam and Eve and the Book of the Secrets of Enoch-see §104):

Concerning menstruation: the first man was the blood and the life of the world Eve was the cause of his death; therefore has she been given the menstruation precept. The same is true concerning hallah (leaven): Adam was the pure hallah for the world ... and Eve was the cause of his death; therefore she has been given the hallah precept. And concerning the lighting of the (Sabbath) lamp: Adam was the light of the world ... and Eve was the cause of his death; therefore has she been given the precept about lighting the (Sabbath) lamp. Rabbi Jose [early second century] said: there are three causes of death and they were transmitted to women, namely, the menstruation precept, the hallah precept, and the precept about lighting the (Sabbath) lamp. (Talmud pShabbath 2, 5b, 34)

Though the precept concerning menstruation could be seen by some as degrading for women and the precept concerning hallah might be seen as bothersome, the lighting of the Sabbath lamp in the home on Friday evening would normally be viewed as an honor. It is therefore somewhat surprising to learn that the ancient rabbinic reason offered for the commandment is that it is a punishment for Eve’s having caused Adam’s death.

Women were also grossly restricted in public prayer. It was not possible for them to be counted toward the number necessary for a quorum (minyan) to form a congregation to worship communally (Mishnah Aboth 3, 6). They were here again, as often in other cases in rabbinic literature, classified with children and slaves, who similarly did not qualify. As noted above, in the great Temple at Jerusalem women were limited to the Gentiles’ court and the women’s court, the latter being fifteen steps below the court for the men (see §102); in the synagogues the women were also separated from the men, and of course they were not allowed to read aloud or perform any leading function.

Besides the disabilities that women suffered in the areas of prayer and worship there were many others in the private and public forums of society. A man regarded it as beneath his dignity, as indeed positively disreputable, to speak to a woman in public. The “Proverbs of the Fathers” contain the injunction:

“Speak not much with a woman.” Since a man’s own wife is meant here, how  much more does not this apply to the wife of another? The wise men say: “Who speaks much with a woman draws down misfortune on himself neglects the words of the law, and finally earns hell.” (Mishnah Aboth 1, 5

If it were merely the too free intercourse of the sexes which was being warned against, this would perhaps signify nothing derogatory to woman. But since the man was not to speak even to his own wife, daughter, or sister in the street (Talmud bBerakhoth 43b), then only male arrogance can be the motive; association with uneducated company was warned against in exactly the same terms. “One is not so much as to greet a woman” (ibid.). In addition, save in the rarest instances, women were not allowed to bear witness in a legal sense (Mishnah Shabbath 4, 1). Some Jewish thinkers, as for example, Philo, of the first century C.E., thought women ought not leave their households except to go to the synagogue-and that only at a time when most of the other people would be at home (Against Flaccus 89; De specialibus legibus III. 171)-and girls ought not even cross the threshold that separated the male and female apartments of the household (De specialibus legibus III.169).

Rabbinic sayings about women also provide an insight into the attitude toward women. “It is well for those whose children are male, but ill for those whose children are female” (Talmud bKiddushin 82b); “At the birth of a boy all are joyful, but at the birth of a girl all are sad” (Talmud bNiddah 3 1 b); “When a boy comes into the world, peace comes into the world; when a girl comes, nothing comes” (ibid.); “Even the most virtuous of women is a witch” (Mishnah Terum 15); “Our teachers have said: Four qualities are evident in women: They are greedy at their food, eager to gossip, lazy and jealous” (Genesis Rabbah 45, 5); “A woman is a pitcher full of filth with its mouth full of blood, yet all run after her” (Talmud bSbabbath 152a).


Earlier it was noted that there was a dual tradition on women in the Hebraic nation, one positive and one negative, somehow connected with Goddess worship and higher status for women on the one hand and Yahweh Worship and dominant status for men on the other, and that with the passage of time the negative came to dominate more and more. It is clear that whatever the restrictions on Hebrew women were in the times reflected in the writings about the patriarchs and their wives (Abraham-Sarah, Isaac-Rebecca, Jacob-Rachel) and the judges (Deborah), they had considerably more status and freedom than at the beginning of the Common Era when men were warned not to speak much to women, even their own wives. An intensification of the restriction on Jewish women took place after the return of a Jewish remnant from the Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C.E., as seen in the demands of Ezra and Nehemiah that the Jewish men drive away their non-Jewish wives and children (Ezra 10:3; Neh 13:23-28), and in the growing anti-woman literature in the later books of the Hebrew Bible and the postbiblical Jewish writings, the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha.

It is not difficult to understand why a pattern of restrictiveness against women developed in Judaism. Their felt need to develop in-group/out-group defenses in the early centuries after the exile, in view of the return of such a relatively small group of Jews to a land surrounded by peoples of different cultures and religions, particularly Goddess worship, is psychologically and sociologically understand. able. The traditional stress within a patriarchal society, such as that of the Hebrews, on continuing the male line in general leads to the sexual restriction of women far beyond that of men (e.g., polygyny but not polyandry being allowed). But the condition of the embattled remnant obviously forced the Jews to take even more drastic measures to retain group identity and unity, as is evidenced by the radical negative actions of Ezra and Nehemiah. After the conquest of the area by Alexander the Great toward the end of the fourth century B.C.E. and the subsequent spread of Hellenistic culture, the restrictive Jewish attitude intensified even more, as can be seen in Ecclesiastes, Ben Sira, and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. The Hellenistic culture proved increasingly attractive and pervasive, and those Jews who saw it as a threat to Jewish identity felt that they had to insulate the Jewish community from its enervating influences. By increasing restrictions, half the population-the female half-was thereby more surely removed from Hellenism’s baleful blandishments; such moves would also tend to lessen the Hellenizing influence non-Jewish women would have on the male half of the Jewish community. Such an approach was also doubtless reinforced by the knowledge that a significant element in the to-be-rejected Hellenistic culture was the relatively much higher status women held in religion and society and the Goddess worship connected with it.

Despite the extraordinary exceptions like the Therapeutae and Beruria, the necessarily defensive stance of Judaism, including the restriction of its women, only rigidified after the destruction of the Jewish homeland in 70 C.E. and 135 C.E. and the increasing persecution of Jews throughout the Roman empire, first by the pagans and after the fourth century by Christians. Jewish women have since then basically remained severely subordinated to men within Judaism until the most recent times.

Rabbinic Judaism, whose roots go back to the origin of the synagogue and the Pharisees in the centuries before the Common Era, reinforced this practice of separation-the very name of the Pharisees means “Separatists.” The destruction of Temple Judaism in 70 C.E. greatly magnified the sociological pressure for a policy of Jewish separateness. Without a homeland, the Jews found such a policy absolutely necessary for survival. Hence the separation and restriction of women tended to be proportionately increased.

Still, the positive elements of the Hebraic tradition on women were there, are recorded, and are to be cherished.





The Apostolic Writings (New Testament) are a series of writings mostly written by Jews, initially even mainly for Jews, about Jews, in largely Jewish conceptual language and imagery, and full of quotations from the Jewish Scriptures, which these writings claim to fulfill. Obviously then, it will be impossible to understand the Apostolic Writings (New Testament) properly except within the context of its Jewish milieu. This is also true as far as the role and status of women is concerned. Hence it is essential that the earlier Hebrew and Jewish traditions concerning women be borne in mind, especially the late biblical, intertestamental, and early rabbinic traditions, which tended to be so very negative on women (see §106). At the same time, however, it must also be kept in mind that Judaism did not exist in isolation from surrounding cultures.

By the time of Jesus, Judaism existed almost entirely within first a Hellenistic world (i.e., the cultural world succeeding the Greek empire of Alexander the Great after 323 B.C.), and then a Greco-Roman world. In Jesus’ lifetime perhaps 8 percent of the Roman empire was Jewish, and most of these eight million Jews lived scattered (in dispersion, “diaspora”) throughout the cities of the empire. But the center of Judaism was still the Palestinian homeland. Naturally Greco-Roman influences on Judaism were very strong in the Diaspora, but they were also strong in Palestine. Hence, it is likewise essential for the understanding of the Apostolic Writings that the Hellenistic, Greco-Roman world also be recalled (see pp. 15ff.). This is important in matters concerning women, even if the Greco-Roman influence is at times reflected only by way of negation and rejection.

The Apostolic Writings can be divided up in a number of ways. One obvious way, and one that is helpful to the study of women, is to divide them into two major groupings: the four Gospels, which focus on the life and teaching of Jesus, and the rest of the twenty-seven books of the Apostolic Writings, which focus on the activities and teachings of the followers of Jesus. Since Jesus is the “founder” of Christianity, there is a certain primacy about the Gospels, that is, it is logical that the life and teaching of Jesus should determine how the teaching of the followers of Jesus should be interpreted, not the other way around. Thus, for example, if Jesus strongly stressed justice for women, but Paul or Peter did not, it would be “logical” for subsequent Christians-who by definition are followers of Jesus, the Christ-to place great stress on justice for women, and to interpret Paul’s and Peter’s lack of stress as something to be expected in followers, a falling short of the example of the leader.

However, history is not always logical, and it is almost never simple. In this case too it was neither so simple nor so logical. In fact, in Christian history, the restrictive statements concerning women in the Pauline and Petrine writings (discussed below, pp. 332ff.) often were much more influential than the very liberating statements and actions of Jesus concerning women. Furthermore, what we know of the life and teachings of Jesus has come down to us already filtered through his followers, so that the distinction between Jesus’ teaching and that of his followers is not always as simple as was earlier thought. Still, with careful, painstaking work, we can learn much about Jesus’ life and teaching.

Hence, the plan to be followed here is to treat first the four Gospels, then the rest of the Apostolic Writings. In dealing with the Gospels, the material will be treated in twofold fashion: first, a presentation of Jesus’ teaching about and interaction with women as imaged in the materials of all four Gospels; second, a systematic presentation of the materials concerning women found in each of the four Gospels successively, which will open up to us something of the impact that Jesus’ life and teaching, as pertaining to women, had on his first hearers and followers-who have bequeathed to us the Apostolic Writings.


The first thing to be noticed about Jesus and women is that in all of the four Gospels, nowhere does Jesus treat women as inferior. In fact, as shall be seen, Jesus clearly felt especially sent to the typical classes of “inferior beings,” such as the poor, the lame, sinners-and women*to call them all to the freedom and equality of the “reign of God.” The twentieth-century reader will perhaps think, “of course.” But when it is recalled that religious men in that Jewish culture thought just the opposite (e.g., Paul: “Man is the head of woman ... man is the image of God ... but woman is a reflection of man’s glory”-1 Cor 11:3, 7; Josephus: “The woman, says the law, is in all things inferior to the man”-Against Apion 11.201), and that in fact women were treated as inferiors by Jesus’ fellow rabbis (e.g., “Rabbi Eliezer [first century C.E.] said: Rather should the words of the Torah be burned than entrusted to a woman!”-Mishnah Sotah 3, 4), this negative fact is quite startling. It becomes still more extraordinary when in addition the nature of the Gospels is considered.

§107. The Nature of the Gospels

The Gospels, of course, are not the straight factual reports of eyewitnesses of the events in the life of Jesus of Nazareth that one might expect to find in the columns of The New York Times or the pages of a critical biography. Rather, they are four different faith statements reflecting at least four primitive Christian communities which believed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Lord and Savior of the world. They were composed from a variety of sources, written and oral, over a period of time and in response to certain needs felt by the communities and individuals at the time; consequently they are many-layered. Since the Gospel writer-editors were not twentieth-century critical historians they were not particularly intent on recording the words of Jesus verbatim, nor were they concerned to winnow out all of their own cultural biases and assumptions. Indeed, it is doubtful whether they were particularly conscious of them.

This modern critical understanding of the Gospels, of course, does not impugn the historical character of the Gospels; it merely describes the type of historical documents they are so that their historical significance can more accurately be evaluated. Its religious value lies in the fact that modern Christians are thereby helped to know much more precisely what Jesus meant by certain statements and actions as they are reported by the first Christian communities in the Gospels. With this new knowledge of the nature of the Gospels it is easier to make the vital distinction between the religious truth that is to be handed on and the time-conditioned categories and customs involved in expressing it.

We find that no negative attitudes by Jesus toward women are portrayed in the Gospels. When this fact is set side by side with the recently discerned “communal faith-statement” understanding of the nature of the Gospels, the importance of the former is vastly enhanced. For whatever Jesus said or did comes to us only through the lens of the first Christians. If there were no very special religious significance in a particular concept or custom, we would expect that current concept or custom to be reflected by Jesus. But we know from the above analysis of the late biblical, pseudepigraphical, early rabbinic and contemporaneous Jewish materials like those of Philo, Josephus, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, that women were generally held to be very inferior to men; there is no reason to assume that Jesus’ followers and the Jewish-Christian sources of the Gospels would not also have held these common views-except for Jesus’ influence. The fact that this overwhelmingly negative attitude toward women in Palestine did not come through the primitive Christian communal lens by itself underscores the clearly great religious importance Jesus attached to his positive attitude-his feminist attitude-toward women: feminism, that is, personalism extended to women, is a constitutive part of the gospel, the good news, of Jesus.

a. Women in Jesus’ Language

Jesus’ attitude toward women is expressed by the Gospel language attributed to him in an extraordinarily vigorous and manifold fashion, First, in the Gospels Jesus often uses women in his stories and sayings, something most unusual for his culture-and others. Secondly, the images of women Jesus uses are never negative, but rather always positive-in dramatic contrast to his predecessors and contemporaries. Thirdly, these positive images of women are often very exalted, at times being associated with the “reign of heaven,” likened to the chosen people, and even to God herself! Fourthly, Jesus often teaches a point by telling two similar stories or using two images, one of which features a man and one a woman. This balance, among other things, indicates that Jesus wanted it to be abundantly clear that his teaching, unlike that of other rabbis, was intended for both women and men-and he obviously wanted this to be clear to the men as well as the women, since he told these stories to all his disciples and at times even to crowds. These sexually parallel stories and images also confirm the presence of women among his hearers; they were used to bring home the point of a teaching in an image that was familiar to the women.

The sexually parallel stories and images used by Jesus range from very brief pairings to lengthy parables. Their frequency of occurrence is impressive, and it is therefore worth gathering them together here where the focus will be mainly on what they can tell us about Jesus’ attitude toward women. The significance of the variations in the recording of the stories and what they tell us of the attitude of the several evangelists and their sources toward women will be analyzed later.

§108. Lamp on a Lampstand

In ch. 8 of his Gospel, Luke recorded that Jesus taught in parables, i.e., stories with a message (Luke 8:10). Luke then related two parables. It is very likely they are sexually parallel stories: the first is about a sower in a field; the second, about a person placing a lamp on a lampstand instead of covering it with a bowl or putting it under a bed. The first story is in the context of the outdoor worker; the second is set indoors. In the first, the masculine gender is used all the way through: the sower (ho speiron), his seed (sporon autou), he sowed (en to speirein auton). In the second story the Greek uses no genders at all: “no one” (oudeis) is the sole subject of the sentence, with no personal pronouns, which would reflect gender, being used. Since in the first the occupation was culturally male and the gender of the language was masculine, and since the context of the second Was culturally female and no gender was reflected in the language, we may conclude that the stories were almost certainly meant by Luke to be sexually parallel stories, and, in the light of other sexually parallel stories and images used by Jesus, were also most probably so meant by Jesus. The first story would immediately be understood existentially by the men of the time, and the second likewise by the women. Both were clearly among Jesus’ listeners. He spoke to each of them.

Though both Mark and Matthew record the saying about putting a lamp on a lampstand (and indeed Luke himself repeats it in another context-Lk 11:33-36), their report of it does not have the clearly sexually parallel quality that it so manifestly does in Luke 8.

With a large crowd gathering and people from every town finding their way to him, he used this parable: “A sower went out to sow his seed. As he sowed, some fell on the edge of the path and was trampled on; and the birds of the air ate it up. Some seed fell on rock, and when it came up it withered away, having no moisture. Some seed fell amongst thorns and the thorns grew with it and choked it ...”

“No one lights a lamp to cover it with a bowl or to put it under a bed, No, it is put on a lamp-stand so that people may see the light when they come in. For nothing is hidden but it will be made clear, nothing secret but it will be known and brought to light.”  (Lk 8:4-8 , 16-17; cf. Mk 4:1-9, 21-22; Mt 13:4-91- 5:15; Lk 11:33-36)

§109. The Widow and the Unjust judge

In one pair of stories illustrating the need for perseverance in prayer Jesus used two tales remarkably similar in structure. The one about the man is given here so it can be compared with the one about the woman; the man is given no qualities superior to the woman:

He also said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend and goes to him in the middle of the night to say, ‘My friend, lend me three loaves, because a friend of mine on his travels has just arrived at my house and I have nothing to offer him,’ and the man answers from inside the house, ‘Do not bother me. The door is bolted now, and my children and I are in bed; I cannot get up to give it to you.’... I tell you, if the man does not get up and give it to him for friendship’s sake, persistence will be enough to make him get up and give his friend all he wants. So I say to you: Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find.” (Lk 11:5-9)

In the parallel story about the woman Jesus uses the image of a widow. She is up against the powerful male establishment, self-confessedly corrupt, at that; her opponent most probably was also a male property holder-her property! She is commended by Jesus for her popularly tagged “masculine” traits of aggressiveness and stick-to-itiveness. This is a comparison story and the widow is the image of, is like, the chosen people (ton eklekton). [Cf. 2 John, which is addressed to the chosen mistress, eklekta kyria. See below, p. 316.]

Then he told them a parable about the need to pray continually and never lose heart. “There was a judge in a certain town,” he said, “who had neither fear of God nor respect for humans. In the same town there was a widow who kept on coming to him and saying, ‘I want justice from you against my enemy!’ For a long time be refused, but at last he said to himself, ‘Maybe I have neither fear of God nor respect for humans, but since she keeps pestering me I must give this widow her just rights, or she will persist in coming and worry me to death.’”

And the Lord said, “You notice what the unjust judge has to say? Now will not God see justice done to his chosen who cry to him day and night even when he delays to help them? I promise you, he will see justice done to them, and done speedily.” (Lk 18:1-8)

§110. A Prophet in His Own Country

In illustrating his statement, “No prophet is ever accepted in his own country,” Jesus again used two brief stories, one centering on women and the other on men. Again the widow is the most down-and-out example of women, matched in the male realm only by outcast lepers. Not only is Luke the only recorder of this sexually paired set of stories, but he also relates the women’s story first, both subtle signs of Luke’s sympathy for the women’s cause.

And he went on, “I tell you solemnly, no prophet is ever accepted in his own country. There were many widows in Israel, I can assure you, in Elijah’s day, when heaven remained shut for three years and six months and a great famine raged throughout the land, but Elijah was not sent to any one of these: he was sent to a widow at Zarephath, a Sidonian town. And in the prophet Elisha’s time there were many lepers in Israel, but none of these was cured, except the Syrian, Naaman.” (Lk 4:24-27)

§ 111. Women at the “End of Days” - I

Three of the pairs of sexually parallel stories concern aspects of the end of the world. One clear point of the first pair is that there is no ultimate importance in the distinction between men and women; important human distinctions are founded on bases other than sex.

“It will be like this when the Son of Man comes. Then of two men in the fields one is taken, one left. Of two women at the millstone grinding, one is taken, one left.” (Mt 24:39-41)

§ 112. Women at the “End of Days” - Il

Luke, with slightly different pairings, makes the same point. (Though the great majority of the best ancient Greek manuscripts do not contain v. 36 about the two men in the field, some do; but this is most likely due to scribes transferring that verse from the parallel in Matt 24:40, quoted just above.) From the Greek it is clear that the two persons referred to in v. 34 are male and the two in v. 35 are female.

“I tell you, on that night two [men] will be in one bed: one will be taken, the other left. Two women will be grinding corn together: one will be taken, the other left. [There will be two men in the fields: one will be taken, the other left.]” (Lk 17:34-36)

§113. The Queen of the South

The second pair of images concerning the final day is an interesting but strange coupling. The image of the men of Nineveh condemning Jesus’ generation fits well with the preceding reference to Jonah. But the reference to the Queen of the South (Sheba) can be connected only because of a similar condemnation of Jesus’ generation for not accepting him. Jesus would not have made these two statements at the same time. But the statement about the Queen of the South probably was on a list of sayings of Jesus which both Luke and Matthew had access to (or one did and the other copied from him). It is likely that Jesus actually made something like both statements-otherwise why would the Queen of Sheba be brought up by Luke or his predecessor at all?-and it is likely that the two statements were linked together here partly because of the similar condemnation. But again, it is still another example of sexually parallel stories that probably go back to Jesus, even if the evangelists, or their sources, are responsible for putting them together here. It is also interesting to note that pro-feminist Luke places the image of the women first, while Matthew gives first place to the man.

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees spoke up. “Master,” they said, “we should like to see a sign from you.” He replied, “It is an evil and unfaithful generation that asks for a sign! The only sign it will be given is the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was in the belly of the sea-monster for three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights. On judgement day the men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation and condemn it, because when Jonah preached they repented; and there is something greater than Jonah here. On judgement day the Queen of the South will rise up with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and there is something greater than Solomon here.” (Mt 12:38-42; cf. Lk 11:29-32)

§114. Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids

The unknown or uncertain quality of the final day is likewise illustrated by the third pair of images concerning the end of time, but it focuses on the uncertainness of when that day will be. The first story is of an honest and dishonest male servant:

“What sort of servant, then, is faithful. and wise enough for the master to place him over his household to give them their food at the proper time? Happy that servant if his master’s arrival finds him at his employment. I tell you solemnly, he will place him over everything he owns. But as for the dishonest servant who says to himself, “My master is taking his time,” and sets about beating his fellow servants and eating and drinking with drunkards, his master will come on a day he does not expect and at an hour he does not know. The master will cut him off and send him to the same fate as the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.” (Mt 24: 45-51; cf. Lk 12:42-46)

Immediately following is the second story, about the wise and foolish bridesmaids. The structure of the story is almost exactly the same as the one about the men, again illustrating the parity women and men held in Jesus’ eyes. It is difficult to believe that these two stories, or something very like them, were not told by Jesus, for who else world have been at such pains to compose two such similar stories illustrating the same point with one focusing on women, if not Jesus? Of course Matthew, or the source Matthew used, might well be credited with setting down this parallel pair together:

“The reign of heaven will be like this: Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were sensible: the foolish ones did take their lamps, but they brought no oil, whereas the sensible ones took flasks of oil as well as their lamps. The bridegroom was late, and they all grew drowsy and fell asleep. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘The bridegroom is here! Go out and meet him.’ At this, all those bridesmaids woke up and trimmed their lamps, and the foolish ones said to the sensible ones, ‘Give us some of our oil: our lamps are going out.’ But they replied, ‘There may not be enough for us and for you; you had better go to those who sell it and buy some for yourselves.’ They had gone off to buy it when the bridegroom arrived. Those who were ready went in with him to the wedding hall and the door was closed. The other bridesmaids arrived later. ‘Lord , Lord” they said, ‘open the door for us.’ But he replied, I tell you solemnly, I do not know you.’ So stay awake, because you do not know either the day or the hour.” (Mt 25:1-13)

It is interesting to note that here Luke does not have the story of the ten bridesmaids, but rather one of servants waiting for the master to return from a wedding feast. Luke uses the generic anthropois for men and the “generic” masculine gender for servants (douloi), so that there is no clear indication that men or both men and women were involved; it could not have been just women. In Mark almost certainly just men are involved in the single brief story of the servants (masculine doulois) and the doorkeeper (masculine thyroroi). Cf. Lk 12:35-40 and Mk 13:34-37.

§115. Heaven the Leaven in Dough

Even the reign of heaven is depicted in a pair of sexually parallel images: one is a man sowing mustard seed, and the other a woman mixing leaven in flour. The main point of the second comparison is that the realm of heaven, like leaven in flour, is initially very small, but in the end it transforms the whole. Jesus was clearly telling women that though they might seem insignificant in this world, they could by association with the “reign of heaven” share in the transformation of the whole world. Another dimension of meaning is also possible. In that religious culture leaven was seen as an agent of corruption, and unleaven was a sign of God’s purity and rule-this can be best seen in the Feast of the Passover. Jesus’ use of leaven not as a sign of corruption and the lack of God’s rule, but the opposite, as a sign of the “reign of heaven,” was probably a deliberate choice on his part to show that what often was thought to be a source of sin was really a source of salvation-and this was done with the intimate association of a woman as the provider of the key image, leaven. Meaning: woman is not the provider of the source (or occasion) of sin, as was usually thought, but the provider of the source of salvation.

Luke apparently thought this second dimension was intended in Jesus’ saying, for he immediately followed it with another set of sayings of Jesus which make that point-or a similar one-primary: that is, those who thought they certainly would find salvation do not, and those who were not expected to, do.

He put another parable before them, “The reign of heaven is like a mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the biggest shrub of all and becomes a tree so that the birds of the air come and shelter in its branches.”

He told them another parable, “The reign of heaven is like the leaven a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour till it was leavened all through.” (Mt 13:31-33; cf. Lk 13:18-21)

§ 116. God Is Likened to a Woman

The ultimate in sexually parallel stories told by Jesus includes one in which God is cast in the likeness of a woman. This was extraordinary in the Jewish culture of Jesus’ time. Luke recorded that the despised tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus, and consequently the Pharisees and scribes complained. According to Luke, Jesus therefore related three parables in a row, all of which depicted God’s being deeply concerned for that which was lost. The first story was of the shepherd who left the ninety-nine sheep to seek the one that was lost-God is like that shepherd. The third story is of the prodigal son-God is like the father. The second story is of the woman who sought the lost coin-God is like that woman. Jesus did not shrink from the notion of God as feminine. In fact, it would appear that Jesus included this womanly image of God quite deliberately at this point, for the scribes and Pharisees were among those who most of all denigrated women-just as they did the “tax collectors and sinners.” (It should be noted that although Matthew has the story about the lost sheep, Mt 18:12-14, only Luke has the stories of the prodigal son and the woman whom God is like.)

There have been some instances in Christian history when the Holy Spirit has been associated with a feminine character (see pp. 57ff.). For example, the Syrian Didascalia (third century), in speaking of various offices in the church, states: “The deaconess, however, should be honored by you as the image of the Holy Spirit.” But in the history of later Christian biblical interpretation nowhere are these images of God presented here by Luke ever used in a Trinitarian manner-i.e., thereby giving the Holy Spirit a feminine image. Yet after the establishment of the doctrine of the Trinity, in the fourth century, this passage would seem to have been particularly apt for Trinitarian interpretation: the prodigal son’s father is God the Father (this interpretation has in fact been quite common in Christian history); since Jesus elsewhere identified himself as the Good Shepherd, the shepherd seeking the lost sheep is Jesus, the Son (this standard interpretation is reflected in, among other things, the often seen picture of Jesus carrying the lost sheep on his shoulders); the woman who sought the lost coin should “logically” be the Holy Spirit, but she has not been so interpreted. Should such lack of “logic” be attributed, as is often suggested, to the Christian abhorrence of pagan goddesses? But then why did Christian abhorrence of pagan gods not also result in a Christian rejection of a male image of God? The only answer can be an underlying widespread Christian deprecatory attitude toward women that blinded most Christian theologians and commentators to the strong feminism of Jesus in the Gospels.

The tax collectors and the sinners, meanwhile, were all seeking his company to hear what he had to say, and the Pharisees and the scribes complained. “This man,” they said, “welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he spoke this parable to them:

(1) “What person among you with a hundred sheep, losing one, would not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the missing one till he found it? ...

(2) “Or again, what woman with ten drachmas would not, if she lost one, light a lamp and sweep out the house and search thoroughly till she found it? And then, when she had found it, call together her friends and neighbours? ‘Rejoice with me,’ she would say, ‘I have found the drachma I lost.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing among the angels of God over one repentant sinner.”

(3) He also said, “A man had two sons. The younger said to his father, ‘Father, let me have the share of the estate that would come to me.’...” (Lk 15:1-5, 8-12)

§117. Extracanonical Sexually Parallel Stories of Jesus

Whether any of the “new” sayings attributed to Jesus found in the third-century Gnostic Christian Gospel of Thomas can in any demonstrable way be plausibly traced back to Jesus is debated by scholars. Much of this “Gospel” is a variation of what is found in the four canonical Gospels, but it is nevertheless interesting to find two quite different stories attributed to Jesus that describe what the reign of the Father (rather than God or heaven, as in the canonical Gospels) is like in sexually parallel fashion. It is difficult to be certain exactly what the meaning of the stories is, but that one is directed primarily at women and the other at men is clear, indicating a continuation of the pattern of sexually parallel stories, if not by Jesus himself, then at least by some of his followers who must have thought it was “in keeping” with his style. After Logion (“Saying”) number 96, which relates how the reign of the Father is like a woman who mixed leaven in some dough, Logia 97 and 98 are as follows:

(Logion 97) Jesus said: “The Kingdom of the [Father] is like a woman who was carrying a jar full of meal. While she was walking (on a) distant road, the handle of the jar broke. The meal streamed out behind her on the road. She did not know (it) she had noticed no accident. When she came into her house, she put down her jar, she found it empty.”

(Logion 98) Jesus said: “The Kingdom of the Father is like a man who wished to kill a powerful man. He drew the sword in his house, he stuck it into the wall, in order to know whether his hand would carry through; then he slew the powerful man.” (Gospel of Thomas, New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. 1, pp. 289-290)

§ 118. Jesus in a Female Image - I

Jesus did not shrink from applying a female image to himself either; he likened himself to a hen gathering her chicks under her wings. Such an image is interesting because throughout the Hebrew Bible the image of protecting wings is often used in connection with God (e.g., Ps 17:8; 36:7; 57:1; 61:4; 63:7; 91:4; Ruth 2:12; Is 31:5; Deut 32:11). But in all these images there is never any intimation of the feminine. It is usually a prayer asking for shelter under God’s wings. There is one reference to birds hovering in protection (Is 31:5) and one to an eagle “hovering over its young” (Deut 3 2:11), but nowhere to a female bird. The use of that image in the Jewish tradition was left to Jesus. (See §61 for a discussion of later Christian reference to Jesus with female imagery.)

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you that kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you! How often have I longed to gather your children, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you refused!” (Lk 13:34; cf. Mt 23:37)

§ 119. Jesus in a Female Image - II

When Jesus was in the Temple on the last day of the Feast of Succoth, at which there was a procession bringing “living” water from the fountain of Shiloh to the Temple as a sign of the future messianic salvation, he uttered a saying that cast him in a female image. He said, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink!” The image of drinking from a human being can only be that of a mother (the fourteenth-century English mystic, Dame Julian of Norwich, did have a scriptural basis for her vision of Christ the mother -see §61b).

Jesus went on to apply a Scripture paraphrase to himself: “From his koilia shall flow fountains of living water.” Koilia basically means a hollow place and is used to refer to the whole or part of the abdomen. In the context of feeding from within, the reference would be to the upper part of the body cavity, and the word koilia could properly be translated “breast.” But modern translations generally are fearful of doing the obvious and projecting Jesus in a maternal image-although Jesus was riot

On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood there and cried out “if anyone is thirsty, let him come to me! Let him come and drink who believes in me! As scripture says: ‘From his breast (koilia) shall flow fountains of living water.’ “ He was speaking of the Spirit which those who believed in him were to receive; for there was no Spirit as yet because Jesus had not yet been glorified. (Jn 7:37-39)

b. Women in Jesus’ Teaching

§ 120. Marriage and the Dignity of Women - I

One of the most important stands Jesus took in relation to the dignity of women was his position on marriage. His attitude toward marriage was unpopular (see Mt 19:10: “The disciples said to him, ‘If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry’”). It presupposed a feminist view of women; they had rights and responsibilities equal to men’s; indeed Mk 10:12 even has Jesus saying: “and if a woman divorces her husband ...” It was quite possible in Jewish law for men to have more than one wife (this practice was probably not common in Jesus’ time, but there are recorded instances, e.g., Herod, Josephus), though the reverse was not possible. Divorce, of course, also was a simple matter, to be initiated only by the man. In both situations women were basically chattel. A man was free to collect or dismiss them if he was able and wished to do so; the double moral standard was flagrantly apparent. Jesus rejected both customs by insisting on monogamy and the elimination of divorce; both the man and the woman were to have the same rights and responsibilities in their relationship toward each other (cf. Mk 10:2-12; Mt 19:3-6). This stance of Jesus was one of the few that were rather thoroughly assimilated by the Christian church. (In fact, it was often applied in an overly rigid way concerning divorce in Western Catholic Christianity, where divorce eventually was almost never allowed, even in The case permitted by Jesus according to Mt 19:9: “Whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity”-me epi porneiai; cf. also Mt 5:28. Such was not the case in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, where divorce continues to be allowed, for Jesus’ ethical prescriptions were, correctly, understood to be goals to be striven toward, not minimums to be rigidly administered.)

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered “Have you not read that the creator from the beginning made them male ‘and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and he joined to his wife, and the two shall become one’? So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let no human put asunder.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?” He said to them, “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed  you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so, And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery.”

The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry.” (Mt 19:3-10) [Cf. also Mt 5:32; Mk 10:2-9; and Lk 16:18; the latter two do not provide any reason for divorce.)

[A rabbinic dispute then raged between the school of Shammai, who said a wife can be divorced only for adultery (Jesus here agrees), and the school of Hillel, who said a wife can be divorce for any reason; this latter became the accepted position in subsequent Judaism-see §101.]

§ 121. Marriage and the Dignity of Women - II

Special note should be taken of the version of Jesus’ words recorded by Mark, judged by many scholars most likely the closest to Jesus’ original words and certainly faithful to the early tradition that here Jesus set forth a new teaching, clearly in favor of putting women on the same level as men in the crucial matter of marriage fidelity. As we have noted, in Jewish law adultery could be committed only against a husband, i.e., sex between a husband and an unmarried woman was not adultery against his wife, but sex between a wife and any man other than her husband was adultery against her husband (deserving the death penalty). But here Jesus speaks of a husband “being guilty of adultery against her [his wife]”-in that culture a revolutionary egalitarianism. It is clear that the parallel accounts in Matthew and Luke also describe the husband as capable of adultery. But to underscore the newness of this teaching Mark’s version includes “against her” (ep’ auten).

He said to them, “The man who divorces his wife and marries another is guilty of adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another she is guilty of adultery too.” (Mk 10: 11-12; cf. Mt 19:9; Lk 16:18)

§ 122. Marriage and the Dignity of Women - III

Jesus clearly saw women as having equal rights and responsibilities within marriage. This was because he did not see a woman’s existence as totally defined by her relationship to a man, i.e., as someone’s daughter, wife, mother, widow, or harlot; her total being was not caught up in marriage. Rather, Jesus saw women as being first of all individual persons, which view was expressed in his response to the Sadducees that at the fulfillment of human history each human being will be simply an individual person, that “men and women do not marry; no, they are like the angels in heaven.” The Sadducees’ question about who the woman would belong to was rejected as containing a false assumption.

That day some Sadducees-who deny that there is a resurrection-approached him and they put this question to him, “Master, Moses said that if a man dies childless, his brother is to marry the widow, his sister-in-law, to raise children for his brother. Now we had a case involving seven brothers; the first married and then died without children, leaving his wife to his brother; the same thing happened with the second and the third and so on to the seventh, and then last of all the woman herself died. Now at the resurrection to which of those seven will she be wife, since she had been married to them all?” Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you understand neither the scriptures nor the power of God. For at the resurrection men and women do not marry; no, they are like the angels in heaven. And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you never read what God said to you: I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob? God is God, not of the dead, but of the living.” (Mt 22:23-30; cf. Mk 12:18-27; Lk 20:27-38)

§ 123. Marriage and the Dignity of Women - IV

It is interesting to note here the remarks of a modern Jewish scholar commenting on the theme of divorce in Mt 5:31-32.

In these verses the originality of Jesus is made manifest. So far, in the Sermon on the Mount, we have round nothing which goes beyond Rabbinic religion and Rabbinic morality, or which greatly differs from them. Here we do. The attitude of Jesus towards women is very striking. He breaks through oriental limitations in more directions than one. For (1) he associates with, and is much looked after by, women in a manner which was unusual; (2) he is more strict about divorce; (3) he is also more merciful and compassionate. He is a great champion of womanhood, and in this combination of freedom and pity, as well as in his strict attitude to divorce, he makes a new departure of enormous significance and importance. If he had done no more than this, he might justly be regarded as one of the great teachers of the world. (Claude G. Montefiore, Rabbinic Literature and Gospel Teaching, pp. 217f.; London, 1930)

§124. Jesus at Cana

According to the Gospel of John the first of the public signs of Jesus was worked by him at the, at least indirect, bidding of a woman, his mother. Also to be noted in John’s account is Jesus’ coupling his respect for his mother with a distancing of himself from her, part of his attempt to loosen the too-of ten oppressive bonds of family in that culture. Jesus addresses his mother as “woman,” a polite and proper enough public usage with other women, but, according to contemporary literature, surely not usual with one’s mother. This “distancing” move is reinforced by his remark, “How does this concern of yours involve me?”

Jesus’ presence at and support of the wedding at Cana also confirms his affirmation of marriage and rejection of hyper-asceticism. Perhaps John had this particularly in mind when he decided to include this account, as a counterweight to the encratic and gnostic elements that were springing up at the time of the composition of his Gospel, for those movements tended to be anti-marriage and/or anti-sex.

On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had likewise been invited to the celebration. At a certain point the wine ran out and Jesus’ mother told him, “They have no more wine.” Jesus replied , “Woman, how does this concern of yours involve me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother instructed those waiting on table, “Do whatever he tells you.” As prescribed for Jewish ceremonial washings, there were at hand six stone water jars, each one holding fifteen to twenty-five gallons. “Fill those jars with water,” Jesus ordered, at which they filled them to the brim. “Now,” he said, “draw some out and take it to the waiter in charge.” They did as he instructed them. The waiter in charge tasted the water made wine, without knowing where it had come from; only the waiters knew, since they had drawn the water. Then the waiter in charge called the groom over and remarked to him: “People usually serve the choice wine first; then when the guests have been drinking awhile, a lesser vintage. What you have done is keep the choice wine until now.” Jesus performed this first of his signs at Cana in Galilee. Thus did he reveal his glory, and his disciples believed in him. (Jn 2: 1 -11)

§125. Jesus Affirms Parents

Jesus affirmed parenthood. Luke notes that Jesus “lived under the authority” of his mother and father (Lk 2:51). And Jesus reiterated the traditional affirmation of parenthood in his own words on one occasion when he accused his opponents of avoiding their obligations to their mothers and fathers. However, in this support of parents Jesus in no way set the father’s prerogatives above those of the mother.

Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem then came to Jesus and said, “Why do your disciples break away from the tradition of the elders? They do not wash their hands when they cat food.” “And why do you,” he answered, “break away from the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said: Do your duty to your father and mother, and: Anyone who curses father or mother must be put to death. But you say, ‘If anyone says to his father or mother: Anything I have that I might have used to help you is dedicated to God,’ he is rid of his duty to father or mother. In this way you have made God’s word null and void by means of your tradition. Hypocrites!” (Mt 15:1-7; cf. Mk 7:1-13)

§126. Jesus’ Problems with His Family

Despite Jesus’ affirmation of marriage and parenthood, he had severe problems with his family. Early in his public life they tried to pack him off because they thought he was insane. More than that, he was rejected by his home community simply because they knew his family. His family not only tried to lock him in, but their very existence also tended to lock the community out.

He went home again, and once more such a crowd collected that they could not even have a meal. When his family heard of this, they set out to take charge of him, convinced he was out of his mind. (Mk 3:20-21)

Going from that district, he went to his home town and his disciples accompanied him. With the coming of the sabbath he began teaching in the synagogue and most of them were astonished when they heard him. They said, “Where did the man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been granted him, and these miracles that are worked through him? This is the carpenter, surely, the son of Mary, the brother of James and Joset and Jude and Simon? His sisters, too, are they not here with us?” And they would not accept him. And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is only despised in his own country, among his own relations and in his own house”; and he could work no miracle there, though he cured a few sick people by laying his hands on them. He was amazed at their lack of faith. (Mk 6:1-6; cf. Mt 13:53-58; Lk 4:16-30)

§127. Spiritual Bonds Above Blood Bonds

In Near Eastern society, despite positive qualities, the demands of the patriarchal family relationships were at times overwhelming, often crushing individual personal growth, and most especially was this so for women. Almost any rule could be bent or broken, but not the obligations to family. Jesus, having experienced family repression himself, clearly and often fought this social form of oppression, which weighed most often and most heavily on women. He insisted on personal, spiritual bonds as being more important than blood bonds.

He was still speaking to the crowds when his mother and his brothers appeared; they were standing outside and were anxious to have a word with him. But to the man who told him this Jesus replied “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand towards his disciples he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. Anyone who does the will of my Father in heaven, he is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mt 12:46-50, cf. Mk 3:31-35; Lk 8:19-21; 11:27-28)

§128. Jesus Dismantles Restrictive Family Bonds

A number of sayings of Jesus stress following him as rising above the bonds of family obligations so vigorously as to be clearly hyperbolic in tone at times, as, for example, “hating” one’s parents (in Aramaic “hating” really has the meaning of “loving less”). What is apparent is Jesus’ setting himself the task of dismantling the awesomely powerful restrictive forces of the patriarchal family, whose most obvious victims were women.

(1) Peter took this up. “What about us?” he asked him. “We have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “I tell you solemnly, there is no one who has left house, brothers, sisters, father, children or land for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not be repaid a hundred times over, houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and land-not without persecutions now in this present time, and in the world to come eternal life.” (Mk 10:28-30)

(2) “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth: it is not peace I have come to bring, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man’s enemies will be those of his household.” (Mt 10:34-36)

(3) “Anyone who prefers father or mother to me is not worthy of me. Anyone who prefers son or daughter to me is not worthy of me.” (Mt 10:37-38)

(4) “And everyone who has left houses, brothers, sisters, father, mother, children or land for the sake of my name will be repaid a hundred times over, and also inherit eternal life.” (Mt 19:29)

(5) “Do you suppose that I am here to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on a household of five will be divided: three against two and two against three; the father divided against the son, son against father, mother against daughter, daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law, daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Lk 12:51-53)

(6) “If anyone comes to me without hating his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, yes and his own life too, he cannot be my disciple.” (Lk 14:26)

(7) Then Peter said, “What about us? We left all we had to follow you.” He said to them, “I tell you solemnly, there is no one who has left house, wife, brothers, parents or children for the sake of the reign of God who will not be given repayment many times over in this present time and, in the world to come, eternal life.” (Lk 18:28-30)

§129. The Widow’s Mite

One of the essential lessons that Jesus taught, in words and actions, was that what is important about a human being is the intention, integrity, and inner spirit of the person rather than the outward forms of strength, beauty, wealth, power, piety, etc. But because the reverse was most often adhered to, Jesus clearly took up the cause of the oppressed, insisting: “Blessed are the poor”; “The last shall be first”;. “The humble shall be exalted.” Jesus combined both these lessons in one when he contrasted the giving of money by the rich (plousioi-masculine!) on the one hand and by a poor widow on the other. Jesus depicted the extremes by rich men on one side, and the lowest of the oppressed on the other, a poor widow, a woman whose almost sole value in society, being a man’s wife, was gone. Jesus was clearly aware of women’s oppressed state in society-and took their side: “I tell you solemnly, this poor widow has put more in than all who have contributed to the treasury.”

He sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the treasury, and many of the rich put in a great deal. A poor widow came and put in two small coins, the equivalent of a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, I tell you solemnly, this poor widow has put more in than all who have contributed to the treasury; for they have all put in money they had over, but she from the little she had has put in eve thing she possessed, all she had to live on.” (Mk 12:41-44; cf. Lk 21:17

§130. Healing of Women by Jesus

Unlike other Jewish rabbis about whom stories of miraculous healing, and raising from the dead, are recorded, Jesus does heal women. They are seen by him first as persons with both physical needs and spiritual strengths (faith), the two of which call forth his healing action. Perhaps the reason there is recorded no instance of a Jewish woman ever asking Jesus for a cure is that Jewish women were conditioned by their culture to assume they would not be recognized by a public religious figure.

It is significant that the first healing by Jesus recorded by the oldest Gospel, Mark (and followed in this by Lk 4:38-39, but not Mt 8:14-15), at the very beginning of Jesus’ public life, was the healing of a woman, Simon Peter’s mother-in-law.

On leaving the synagogue, he went with James and John straight to the house of Simon and Andrew. Now Simon’s mother-in-law had gone to bed with fever, and they told him about her straightaway. He went to her, took her by the hand and helped her up. And the fever left her and she began to wait on them. (Mk 1:29-31; cf. Mt 8:14-15; Lk 4:38-39)

§131. Healing of the Woman with an Issue of Blood

All three of the Synoptic Gospels record the healing of the woman who had an issue of blood for twelve years. Especially touching is the fact that the woman was so reluctant to project herself into public attention that she “said to herself, ‘If I only touch his garment, I shall be made well.’” As a woman with a flow of blood, whether menstrual or other, she had been constantly, for twelve years, ritually unclean (Lev 15:19-30). This not only made her incapable of participation in any cultic action and made her in some sense “displeasing to God,” it also rendered anyone and anything she touched (or anyone who touched what she had touched!) similarly unclean. But Jesus not only healed the woman, he also made a great to-do about the event, calling extraordinary attention to the publicity-shy Woman. It seems clear that Jesus wanted to call attention to the fact that he did not shrink from the ritual uncleanness incurred by being touched by the “unclean” woman, and by immediate implication that he rejected the concept of the “uncleanness” of a woman who had a flow of blood. Jesus apparently placed a greater importance on the dramatic making of this point, both to the afflicted woman herself and to the crowd, than he did on avoiding the temporary psychological discomfort of the embarrassed woman, which in the light of Jesus’ extraordinary concern to alleviate the pain of the afflicted meant he placed a great weight on the teaching of this lesson about the dignity of women.

Jesus went with him and a large crowd followed him; they were pressing all round him. Now there was a woman who had suffered from a hoemorrhage for twelve years; after long and painful treatment under various doctors, she had spent all she had without being any the better for it; in fact, she was getting worse. She had heard about Jesus, and she came up behind him through the crowd and touched his cloak. “If I can touch even his clothes,” she had told herself, “I shall be well again.” And the source of the bleeding dried up instantly, and she felt in herself that she was cured of her affliction. Immediately aware that power had gone out from him, Jesus turned round in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” His disciples said to him, “You see how the crowd is pressing round you and yet you say, ‘Who touched me?”’ But he continued to look all round to see who had done it. Then the woman came forward, frightened and trembling because she knew what had happened to her, and she fell at his feet and told him the whole truth. “My daughter,” he said, “our faith has restored you to health; go in peace and be free from your affliction.” (Mk 5:24-34; cf. Mt 9:18-26; Lk 8:40-56)

§132. Healing on the Sabbath

Luke, whose Gospel exhibits the greatest sympathy for women by the relatively large number of events and stories involving women he includes, reports three healings on the Sabbath-which caused Jesus difficulties. Two were healings of men, the other, the healing of a woman. John also records the healing of two men on the Sabbath (Jn 5:10; 9:14-17), whereas both Mark (Mk 3:1-6) and Matthew (Mt 12:9-14) report only the healing of one man; none of the three report the healing of any women on the Sabbath. Perhaps Luke’s Hellenistic background and intended audience explain his emphasizing Jesus’ feminism, since the Hellenistic world experienced an extended “women’s liberation” movement (see above, pp. HE, for further analysis). It should also be noted that in Luke’s story Jesus not only healed the woman on the Sabbath, he also spoke to her in public, an unseemly thing for any man in that culture, especially a rabbi. He also referred to her as a “daughter of Abraham,” an almost unheard of honorific, although son of; Abraham (cf. “sons of the covenant,” bnei brith) is a standard phrase used throughout Hebrew and Jewish literature as well as by Jesus (e.g., Lk 19:9) as a way of referring to a member (male) of the chosen people. For Jesus, women were also clearly full-fledged participants of the people and covenant of God.

One sabbath day he was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who for eighteen years had been possessed by a spirit that left her enfeebled; she was bent double and quite unable to stand upright. When Jesus saw her he called her over and said, “Woman, you are rid of your infirmity,” and he laid his hands on her. And at once she straightened up, and she glorified God.

But the synagogue official was indignant because Jesus had healed on the sabbath, and he addressed the people present. “There are six days,” he said “when work is to be done. Come and be healed on one of those days and not on the sabbath.” But the Lord answered him. “Hypocrites!” he said. “Is there one of you who does not untie his ox or his donkey from the manger on the sabbath and take it out for watering? And this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan has held bound these eighteen years-was it not right to untie her bonds on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his adversaries were covered with confusion, and all the people were overjoyed at all the wonders he worked. (Lk 13:10-17; cf. Lk 6:6-11; 14:1-6)

§133. The Syrophoenician Woman and Jesus

According to Matthew, Jesus conceived of his mission as being directed first of all to God’s chosen people, the Jews. The first recorded instance of his going beyond the limits of his commission was to heal a female, at the persistent insistence of a woman. It was her human quality, her “faith,” that Jesus perceived and that moved him to extend himself; she was not treated as an inferior category, a woman, but as a “person,” who had “great faith.” It is also interesting to note that this is the only recorded instance wherein Jesus was bested in a verbal exchange-and it is by a woman.

Jesus left that place and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. Then out came a Canaanite woman from that district and started shouting, “Sir, Son of David, take pity on me. My daughter is tormented by a devil.” But he answered her not a word. And his disciples went and pleaded with him. “Give her what she wants,” they said, “because she is shouting after us.” He said in reply, I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.” But the woman had come up and was kneeling at his feet. “Lord “ she said, “help me.” He replied, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the house-dogs.” She retorted, “Ah yes, sir; but even house-dogs can eat the scraps that fall from their master’s table.” Then’ Jesus answered her, “Woman, you have great faith. Let your wish be granted.” And from that moment her daughter was well again. (Mt 15:21-28; cf. Mk 7:24-30)

§ 134. Jesus’ Concern for Widows - I

Jesus felt himself especially sent to the poor and oppressed, and that clearly included in a preeminent way the largest class of that group, women. However, if women were a more oppressed class among the oppressed, the most oppressed of women were widows, for they had almost no means of livelihood or standing before the law, nor anyone to provide them. Jesus was clearly most concerned about these most oppressed of the most oppressed class of the oppressed, and his concern was translated into action. It should be noted that all the following accounts concerning Jesus and widows, save the final one, are recorded in Luke, again reflecting Luke’s sensitivity to this dimension of Jesus’ mission.

§ 135. Jesus’ Concern for Widows - II

It is recorded by Luke that almost at the beginning of his life Jesus was prophesied over by a widow.

There was a woman prophet also, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was well on in years. Her days of girlhood over, she had been married for seven years before becoming a widow. She was now eighty-four years old and never left the Temple, serving God night and day with fasting and prayer. She came by just at that moment and began to praise Cod; and she spoke of the child to all who looked forward to the deliverance of Jerusalem. (Lk 2:36-38)

§ 136. Jesus’ Concern for Widows - III

Jesus set before his disciples the example of a widow’s minute contribution as being greater than the largesse of the rich (see §129):

A he looked up be saw rich people putting their offerings into the treasury; then he happened to notice a poverty-stricken widow putting in two small coins, and he said “I tell you truly, this poor widow has put in more than any of them for these have all contributed money they had over, but she from the little she had has put in all she had to live on.” (Lk 21:1-4; cf. Mk 12:41-44)

§ 137. Jesus’ Concern for Widows - IV

Jesus publicly vigorously condemned the scribes (part of the male establishment) for their oppression of widows-thereby earning himself many enemies.

In his teaching he said , “Beware of the scribes who like to walk about in long robes, to be greeted obsequiously in the market squares, to take the front seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets; these are the men who swallow the property of widows, while making a show of lengthy prayers. The more severe will be the sentence they receive.” (Mk 12:38-40; cf. Lk 20:45-47)

§ 138. Jesus’ Concern for Widows - V

In his teaching Jesus used the image of widows when illustrating how a prophet is not accepted in his own country.

“There were many widows in Israel, I can assure you, in Elijah’s day, when heaven remained shut for three years and six months and a great famine raged throughout the land, but Elijah was not sent to any one of these: he was sent to a widow at Zarephath, a Sidonian town. And in the prophet Elisha’s time there were many lepers in Israel, but none of these was cured, except the Syrian, Naaman.” (Lk 4:25-27)

§ 139. Jesus’ Concern for Widows - VI

Also in his teaching Jesus used the image of a widow as one in the weakest and most hopeless of positions to illustrate the need for perseverance in prayer. (Lk 18:1-8; see §109 for text)

§ 140. Jesus’ Concern for Widows - VII

Also recorded is Jesus’ curing of a widow, Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. The fact that she was living at Peter’s house is a clear indication that she was widowed (also see §130).

Leaving the synagogue he went to Simon’s house. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever and they asked him to do something for her. Leaning over her he rebuked the fever and it left her. And she immediately got up and began to wait on them. (Lk 4:38-39; cf. Mt 8:14-15; Mk 1:29-31)

§ 141. Jesus’ Concern for Widows - VIII

Perhaps the most moving action of Jesus for the sake of a widow was his raising to life the only son of the widow of Nain; she, unlike Peter’s mother-in-law, had no one to provide for and protect her. Jesus was “moved with pity” for her “and said to her, ‘Do not cry.’”

Soon afterward he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd accompanied him. As he approached the gate of the town a dead man was being carried out, the only son of a widowed mother. A considerable crowd of townsfolk were with her. The Lord was moved with pity upon seeing her and said to her “Do not cry.” Then he stepped forward and touched the litter; at this, the bearers halted. He said, “Young man, I bid you get up.” The dead man sat up and began to speak. Then Jesus gave him back to his mother. Fear seized them all and they began to praise God. “A great prophet has risen among us,” they said; and, “God has visited his people.” This was the report that spread about him throughout Judea and the surrounding country. (Lk 7:11-17)

§ 142. Jesus’ Concern for Widows - IX

Just as there was a widow (Anna) and his mother at the beginning of his life (Lk 2:36-38), so also at the end of Jesus’ life there was a widow and his mother-and the two were one. According to John, even in his death agony Jesus looked to the welfare of his beloved most oppressed, widows; he provided for his mother’s future home with his “beloved disciple.”

Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother and his mother’s sister Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. Seeing his mother and the disciple he loved standing near her, Jesus said to his mother “Woman, this is your son.” Then to the disciple he said, “This is your mother.” And from that moment the disciple made a place for her in his home. (Jn 19:25-27)

§143. The Woman Taken in Adultery

The story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery is found in the Gospel of John, although scholars agree that he did not write the story. It is not found in the earliest Greek manuscripts and comes into the canonical scriptures through the manuscripts of the Western Latin church, although there is a reference to the story in the third-century Didascalia, of Syrian origin. Why the long resistance to this story? Probably partly because Jesus was totally forgiving of adultery and much of early Christianity took an extremely severe stance against sexual offenses. Also, Jesus’ treating of the woman in the story as a person rather than simply as a creature of sex probably drew forth resistance from certain elements in the church; other elements (women?) persisted in retaining the story, and ultimately succeeded.

We have in this story the crass use by a group of scribes and Pharisees of a woman, reduced entirely to a sex object, to set a legal trap for Jesus. In fact, it is difficult to imagine a more callous use of a human person than the way the enemies of Jesus treated the adulterous woman. First, the woman was surprised in the intimate act of sexual intercourse. According to Deut 19:15 there had to have been two or more witnesses other than the husband. The witnesses, of course, had to be male. Unless the scribes and the Pharisees were themselves the witnesses, it would seem that the poor woman was dragged before them, and they perhaps in turn, along with the witnesses, were dragging her to the Sanhedrin. Since Jesus was teaching in the area of the Temple at the time, the scribes and the Pharisees apparently took the opportunity to use the woman to trap Jesus.

Most scholars suggest that the trap set up for Jesus was to present him with the dilemma of a woman caught in the very act of adultery, which according to Mosaic law should have resulted in her being put to death, on the one hand, and the restriction of capital punishment to Roman authorities at that time, on the other. It is also clear that the enemies of Jesus would not have thought of this case as presenting Jesus with some kind of trap if Jesus did not already have a reputation among them as a champion of women. There apparently was no question but that the woman was guilty of the “crime” of adultery, since she was caught in delicto, and therefore was subject to the Mosaic punishment of death. The question was, would Jesus retain his reputation as the great rabbi, the teacher of the Torah, or would he retain his reputation as the champion of women?

Jesus of course avoided the horns of the dilemma by refusing to become involved in legalisms and abstractions. Rather, he dealt with the persons involved, both the woman herself and her accusers. He spoke to the latter not as a lawyer, nor as to lawyers, but rather as one who was concerned with their humanness, their mind, spirit, and heart: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” He spoke similarly to the woman when he said that he also would not condemn her, but that she should from now on avoid that sin.

At daybreak he appeared in the Temple again; and as all the people came to him, he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and Pharisees brought a woman along who had been caught committing adultery; and making her stand there in full view of everybody, they said to Jesus, “Master, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery, and Moses has ordered us in the Law to condemn women like this to death by stoning. What have you to say?” They asked him this as a test, looking for something to use against him. But Jesus bent down and started writing on the ground with his finger. As they persisted with their question, he looked up and said, “If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then he bent down and wrote on the ground again. When they heard this they went away one by one, beginning with the eldest, until Jesus was left alone with the woman, who remained standing there. He looked up and said, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she replied. “Neither do I condemn you,” said Jesus, “go away, and don’t sin any more.” (Jn 8:2-11)


§144. Jesus and the Penitent Woman

Scholars have always found the story of Jesus and the penitent woman difficult to understand and translate (especially the key portion, v. 47); Joachim Jeremias provides perhaps the most helpful suggestion when he supposes that Jesus had just delivered a powerful sermon that moved the Pharisee Simon to see Jesus as a prophet and the sinful woman to confess and repent of her sins and he filled with gratitude for the forgiveness she received in the sermon. Several things should be recalled here in the relationship between the woman and Jesus. First, in that culture one did not publicly speak to one’s own wife, let alone to a strange woman, indeed a known “sinner,” probably a prostitute! Jesus not only spoke with her but let her touch him and kiss him. Further, a woman was never to let her hair be uncovered, and to loose it in public was grounds for mandatory divorce; this woman uncovered her hair, loosed it, and wiped Jesus’ feet with it, without thereby scandalizing Jesus-although Simon was clearly scandalized. Jesus rebuked the Pharisee and treated the woman not as a sexual creature but as a person; he spoke of her human and spiritual actions, her love, her unlove (her sins), her being forgiven, and her faith.

One of the Pharisees invited him to a meal. When he arrived at the Pharisee’s house and took his place at table, a woman came in, who had a bad name (en hamartolos, was a sinner) in the town. She had heard he was dining with the Pharisee and had brought with her an alabaster jar of ointment. She waited behind him at his feet, weeping, and her tears fell on his feet, and she wiped them away with her hair; then she covered his feet with kisses and anointed them with the ointment.

When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who this woman is that is touching him and what a bad name she has.” Then Jesus took him up and said him “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Speak, Master,” was the reply. “There was once a creditor who had two men in his debt; one owed him five hundred denarii, the other fifty. They were unable to pay, so he pardoned them both. Which of them will love him more?” “The one who was pardoned more, I suppose,” answered Simon. Jesus said, “You are right.”

Then he turned to the woman. “Simon,” he said, “you see this woman? I came into your house, and you poured no water over my feet, but she has poured out her tears over my feet and wiped them away with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but she has been covering my feet with kisses ever since I came in. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. For this reason I tell you that her sins, her many sins, must have been forgiven her, or she would not have shown such great love, It is the person who is forgiven little who shows little love.” Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Those who were with him at table began to say to themselves, “Who is this man, that he even forgives sins?” But he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Lk 7:36-50)

§145. Prostitutes and the Reign of God

On at least one other occasion Jesus reached out in his teaching specifically to the most despised of human creatures, prostitutes, Jesus made it clear in both his words and actions that he understood his mission to be to preach in word and deed the “good news,” the coming of the reign of God, to the poor and oppressed. In a debate with the chief priests and the elders of the people Jesus named two of the presumably most unlikely classes of these “oppressed” as entering into the reign of God ahead of the chief priests and elders, namely, tax collectors and prostitutes, the two most despised groups of that society. A sexual parallelism should be noted here: the male tax collector and the female prostitute. It is difficult to believe that such a sexual balance was not struck deliberately by Jesus, for the Synoptic Gospels usually connect tax collectors and sinners, a much broader term than prostitutes, with Jesus ten different times and only on this occasion are tax collectors and prostitutes mentioned. In fact (except in the parable of the prodigal son), this is the only time the term “prostitutes” is used in any of the Gospels. The source for the term “prostitutes” in this connection could then, almost certainly, only be Jesus.

Upon reflection, it is really quite extraordinary that Jesus would picture prostitutes as in the reign of God, as being “saved.” Clearly for him a woman reduced completely to a sex object is seen as the object, not of disdain, but rather of exploitation, who nevertheless is a person, one among those who can “make their way into the reign of God. “

He had gone into the Temple and was teaching, when the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him.... Jesus said to them, “I tell you solemnly, tax collectors and prostitutes are making their way into the reign of God before you. For John came to you, a pattern of true righteousness, but you did not believe him, and yet the tax collectors and prostitutes did.” (Mt 21:23, 31-32)

§146. The Samaritan Woman

On another occasion Jesus again deliberately and flagrantly violated the then common code concerning men’s relationship to women. It is recorded in the story of the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob. Jesus was waiting at the well outside the village while his disciples were getting food. A Samaritan woman approached the well to draw water. Normally a Jew would not address a Samaritan, as the woman pointed out: “Jews, in fact, do not associate with Samaritans.” But, of course, also normally a man would not speak to a woman in public (doubly so in the case of a rabbi). However, Jesus startled the woman by initiating a conversation. The woman was aware that on both counts, her being a Samaritan and being a woman, Jesus’ action was out of the ordinary, for she replied: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” As hated as the Samaritans were by the Jews, it is nevertheless clear that Jesus’ speaking with a woman was considered a much more flagrant breach of conduct than his speaking with a Samaritan, for John related: “His disciples returned, and were shocked to find him speaking to a woman, though none of them asked, ‘What do you want from her?’ or, ‘Why are you talking to her?”’ Of course the woman’s being a Samaritan more than doubled the shocking quality of Jesus’ conversing with her, and especially his taking a drink from her, for she was considered certainly ritually unclean since customarily Jews considered Samaritan women as menstruants (and hence unclean: Lev 15:19) from their cradle! However, Jesus’ rejection of the woman’s uncleanness and his bridging of the gap of inequality between men and women continued further, for in the conversation with the woman he revealed himself in a straightforward fashion as the Messiah for the first time (according to John): “The woman said to him, ‘I know that the Messiah is coming.’... Jesus said to her, ‘I who speak to you am he.’”

Just as when Jesus revealed himself to Martha as “the resurrection,” and to Mary Magdalene as the “risen one” and bade her to bear witness to the disciples, Jesus here also revealed himself in one of his key roles, as Messiah, to a woman (all these instances recorded in the Gospel of John)-who immediately bore witness of the fact to her fellow villagers. It is interesting to note that apparently the testimony of women carried greater weight among the Samaritans than among the Jews, for the villagers came out to see Jesus: “Many Samaritans of that town believed in him on the strength of the woman’s testimony ....” It would seem that John the Gospel writer deliberately highlighted this contrast in the way he wrote about this event, and also that he clearly wished thereby to reinforce Jesus’ stress on the equal dignity of women.

This stress on the witness role of the Samaritan woman is further underscored by John’s language. He says the villagers “believed ... because of the woman’s word” (episteusan did ton logon), almost the identical words he records in Jesus’ “priestly” prayer at the Last Supper when Jesus prays not only for his disciples “but also for those who believe in me through their word” (... pisteuonton dia tou logou, Jn 17:20). As Raymond E. Brown notes, “the Evangelist can describe both a woman and the (presumably male) disciples at the Last Supper as bearing witness to Jesus through preaching and thus bringing people to believe in him on the strength of their word.” (Raymond E. Brown, “Roles of Women in the Fourth Gospel, “ Theological Studies, December 1975, p. 691.)

One other point should be noted in connection with this story. As the crowd of Samaritans was walking out to see Jesus, Jesus was speaking to his disciples about the fields being ready for the harvest and how he was sending them to reap what others had sown. He was clearly speaking of the souls of humans, and most probably was referring directly to the approaching Samaritans. Such exegesis is standard. It is also rather standard to refer to “others” in general and only to Jesus in particular as having been the sowers whose harvest the apostles were about to reap (e.g., in the Jerusalem Bible). But it would seem that the evangelist also meant specifically to include the Samaritan woman among those sowers, for immediately after he recorded Jesus’ statement to the disciples about their reaping what others had sown he added the above-mentioned verse: “Many Samaritans of that town had believed on the strength of the woman’s testimony. . . .” The Samaritan woman preached the “Good News,” the evangelion, of Jesus, that is, she was. an “evangelist.”

When Jesus heard that the Pharisees had found out that he was making and baptising more disciples than John-though in fact it was his disciples who baptised, not Jesus himself-he left Judaea and went back to Galilee. This meant that he had to cross Samaria.

On the way he came to the Samaritan town called Sychar, near the land that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Joseph’s well is there and Jesus, tired by the journey, sat straight down by the well. It was about the sixth hour. When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her “Give me a drink.” His disciples had gone into the town to buy food. The Samaritan woman said to him, “What? You are a Jew and you ask me, a woman of Samaria, for a drink?-Jews, in fact , do not associate with Samaritans.” Jesus replied: “if you only knew what God is offering and who it is that is saying to you: ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have been the one to ask, and he would have given you living water.” “You have no bucket, sir,” she answered, “and the well is deep: how could you get this living water? Are you a greater man than our father Jacob who gave us this well and drank from it himself with his sons and his cattle?” Jesus replied: “Whoever drinks this water will get thirsty again; but anyone who drinks the water that I shall give will never be thirsty again: the water that I shall give will turn into a spring inside him, welling up to eternal life.”

“Sir,” said the woman, “give me some of that water, so that I may never get thirsty and never have to come here again to draw water.” “Go and call your husband,” said Jesus to her, “and come back here.” The woman answered, “I have no husband.” He said to her, “You are right to say, ‘I have no husband’; for although you have had five, the one you have now is not your husband. You spoke the truth there.” “I see you are a prophet, sir,” said the woman. “Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, while you say that Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship.” Jesus said: “Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know; for salvation comes from the Jews. But the hour will come -in fact it is here already-when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth: that is the kind of worshiper the Father wants. God is spirit, and those who worship must worship in spirit and truth.”

The woman said to him , I know that Messiah-that is, Christ-is coming, and when he comes he will tell us everything.” I who am speaking to you,”At said Jesus, I am he.”

At this point his disciples returned, and were surprised to find him speaking to a woman, though none of them asked, “What do you want from her?” or, “Why are you talking to her?” The woman put down her water jar and hurried back to the town to tell the people, “Come and see a man who has told me everything I ever did; I wonder if he is the Christ?” This brought people out of the town and they started walking towards him.

Meanwhile, the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, do have something to eat”; but he said I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples asked one another, “Has someone been bringing him food?” But Jesus said: “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me, and to complete is work. Have you not got a saying: Four months and then the harvest? Well, I tell you: Look around you, look at the fields; already they are white, ready for harvest! Already the reaper is being paid his wages, already he is bringing in the grain for eternal life, and thus sower and reaper rejoice together. For here the proverb holds good: one sows, another reaps; I sent on to reap a harvest you had not worked for. Others worked for it; and you have come into the rewards of their trouble.”

Many Samaritans of that town had believed in him on the strength of the woman’s testimony when she said, “He told me all I have ever done” so when the Samaritans came up to him, they begged him to stay with them. He stayed for two days, and when he spoke to them many more came to believe; and they said to the woman “Now we no longer believe because of what you told us; we have heard him ourselves and we know that he really is the saviour of the world.” (Jn 4:1-42)

§147. Martha and Mary

Perhaps the strongest and clearest affirmation on the part of Jesus that the intellectual and “spiritual” life was just as proper to women as to men is recorded in Luke’s Gospel in the description of a visit of Jesus to the house of his friends Martha and Mary. The first thing to be noted is that Jesus allowed himself to be served by a woman, which was contrary to strict custom, although it might have been somewhat mitigated because it took place in the less rigid village area. Jesus here clearly rejected the prevalent notion that the only proper place for women was “in the home.” Martha took the woman’s typical role and “was distracted with much serving.” Mary, however, took the supposedly male role: she “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching.” To sit at someone’s feet is a rabbinic phrase indicating studying with that person. That phrase, coupled with the second half, “listened to his teaching,” makes it abundantly clear that Mary was acting like a disciple of a teacher, a rabbi. Martha apparently thought Mary was out of place in choosing the role of the “intellectual,” for she complained to Jesus. But Jesus’ response was a refusal to force all women into the stereotype; he treated Mary first of all as a person (whose highest faculty is the intellect, the spirit) who was allowed to set her own priorities, and who in this instance had “chosen the better part.” And Jesus applauded her: “It is not to be taken from her.” Again, when one recalls the Palestinian restriction on women studying the Scriptures or studying with rabbis, that is, engaging in the intellectual life or acquiring any “religious authority,” it is difficult to imagine how Jesus could possibly have been clearer in his insistence that women were called to the intellectual, the spiritual, life just as were men.

In the course of their journey he came to a village, and a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. She had a sister called Mary, who sat down at the Lord’s feet and listened to him speaking. Now Martha who was distracted with all the serving said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister is leaving me to do the serving all by myself? Please tell her to help me.” But the Lord answered: “Martha, Martha,” he said, “you worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part; it is not to be taken from her.” (Lk 10:38-42)

§148. Intellectual Life for Women

There is at least one other instance recorded in the Gospels when Jesus clearly taught that the intellectual and spiritual life was definitely for women. One day as Jesus was preaching, a woman from the crowd apparently was very deeply impressed and, perhaps imagining how happy she would be to have such a son, raised her voice to pay Jesus a compliment. She did so by referring to his mother, and did so in a way that was probably not untypical at that time and place. But her image of a woman was sexually reductionist in the extreme (one that largely persists to the present): female genitals and breasts. “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!” Although this was obviously meant as a compliment, and although it was even uttered by a woman, Jesus clearly felt it necessary to reject this “baby machine” image of women and insist again on the personhood, the intellectual and moral faculties, being primary for all: “But he said, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!’” It is difficult to see how the primary point of this text could be anything substantially other than this. Luke and the sources he depended on must also have been quite clear about the sexual significance of this event. Otherwise, why would he (and they) have kept and included such a small event from all the months of Jesus’ public life? It was not retained merely because Jesus said those who hear and keep God’s word are blessed, for Luke had already recorded that statement of Jesus in 8:21 (cf. Mt 12:46-50 and Mk 3:31-35). Rather, it was probably retained because keeping God’s word was stressed by Jesus as being primary in comparison to a woman’s sexuality. Luke seems to have had a discernment here, as well as elsewhere, concerning what Jesus was about in his approach to the question of women’s status that has not been shared by subsequent Christians (and perhaps was not shared by many of Luke’s fellow Christians), for, in the explanation of this passage, Christians for two thousand years apparently have not seen its plain meaning-doubtless because of unconscious presuppositions about the status of women inculcated by their cultural and religious milieu.

Now as he was speaking, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said, “Happy the womb that bore you and the breasts you sucked!” But he replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Lk 11:27-28)

c. Women in the Life of Jesus

§149. The Prophet Anna

Luke records at least seven sexually parallel images or stories, one about a man and one about a woman, used by Jesus. The same sexual parallelism is found in his account of the presentation of the child Jesus in the Temple. The parents are met there by Simeon, “an upright and devout man,” who, though he is not called a prophet, nevertheless prophesies concerning Jesus. They are also met by a woman who is specifically called a prophet (prophetis) and who also spoke of Jesus as the Messiah.

There was a woman prophet also, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was well on in years. Her days of girlhood over, she had been married for seven years before becoming a widow. She was now eighty-four years old and never left the Temple, serving God night and day with fasting and prayer. She came by just at that moment and began to praise God; and she spoke of the child to all who looked forward to the deliverance of Jerusalem. (Lk 2:36-38)

§ 150. Women Disciples of Jesus - I

The disciples of Jesus were those who followed Jesus about, listening to and living with him. This group of disciples included in a prominent way a number of women (some are specifically named), mainly from the more rural area of Galilee where the restrictive rules against women would have been less stringent than in Jerusalem. Still, they had to leave home and family and travel openly with a “rabbi,” an unheard of breach of custom. Jesus not only condoned but obviously encouraged this flouting of sexist custom. These women disciples were such a prominent part of Jesus’ life that all three of the Synoptic Gospels mention them.

Now after this he made his way through towns and villages preaching, and proclaiming the Good News of the reign of God. With him went the Twelve, as well as certain women who had been cured of evil spirits and ailments: Mary surnamed the Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, Susanna, and several others who ministered (diekonoun) to them out of their own resources. (Lk 8:1-3; cf. Mk 15:40-41; Mt 27:55-56)

§151. Women “Minister to” (Diakoneo) Jesus

All three of the Synoptic Gospels use a form of the verb diakoneo  (to minister or serve) to describe what these women did in addition to saying that they “followed” Jesus. It is the same basic word as “deacon”; indeed, apparently the tasks of the deacons in early Christianity were much the same as what these women undertook.

There were some women watching from a distance. Among them were Mary of Magdala, Mary who was the mother of James the younger and Joset, and Salome. These used to follow him and minister (diekonoun) to him when he was in Galilee. And there were many other women there who had come up to Jerusalem with him. (Mk 15:40-41)

And many women were there, watching from a distance, the same women who had followed Jesus from Galilee and ministered (diakonousai) to him. Among them were Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons. (Mt 27:55-56)

§ 152. Women Disciples of Jesus - II

That early Christians thought of and referred to the women who are mentioned by name in the above three citations as “disciples” of Jesus is attested to by at least three early apocryphal Christian documents (see pp. 66f. for a brief discussion of the significance of apocryphal writings). The first, the

Sophia Jesu Christi, was probably written during the second century; it puts these seven holy women followers of Jesus terminologically on a par with the twelve men followers. It calls the men not only apostles but also disciples (mathetes), and it says of the women that they had followed him “as disciples” (matheteuein).

After he had risen from the dead, when they came, the twelve disciples (mathetes) and seven women who had followed him as disciples (matheteuein), into Galilee.... there appeared to them the Redeemer. (Sophia Jesu Christi, New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. 1, p. 246)

The second document, the second-century Gospel of Thomas, contains a rather obscure exchange between Jesus and Salome, in the midst of which Salome announces that she is Jesus’ disciple, and he does not contradict her.

Jesus said: “Two will rest on a bed: the one will die, the one will live.” Salome said: “Who art thou, man, and whose son? Thou didst take thy place upon my bench and eat from my table.” Jesus said to her: I am He who is from the Same, to me was given from the things of my Father.” Salome said: “I am thy disciple. “ Jesus said [to her]: “Therefore I say, if he is the Same, he will be filled with light, but if he is divided, he will be filled with darkness.” (Gospel of Thomas, New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. 1, p. 298)

The third document is the early third-century Pistis Sophia, wherein Mary Magdalene is not specifically called a disciple, but Jesus predicts that she “will surpass all my disciples.”

But Mary Magdalene and John, the maiden (parthenos), will surpass all my disciples (mathetai) and all men who shall receive mysteries in the Ineffable, they will be on my right hand and on my left, and I am they and they are I. (Pistis Sophia, New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. 1, pp. 256-257)

§ 153. Anointment of Jesus by Mary of Bethany - I

It was customary that women did not eat with men when guests were present, nor, indeed, did they even enter the dining area. Nevertheless, when a woman (Mary of Bethany according to Jn 12:3) entered the room where Jesus was dining and anointed him, be neither resisted nor rebuked her. To be sure, others showed unhappiness at her intrusion, expressed especially at her “wasting” the expensive ointment. But, as in the “Martha and Mary” story of Lk 10:38-42, Jesus defended Mary’s act of special discipleship to him.

Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper; he was at dinner when a woman came in with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the ointment on his head. Some who were there said to one another indignantly, “Why this waste of ointment? Ointment like this could have been sold for over three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor”; and they were angry with her. But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why are you upsetting her? What she has done for me is one of the good works. You have the poor with you always, and you can be kind to them whenever you wish, but you will not always have me. She has done what was in her power to do: she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. I tell you solemnly, wherever throughout all the world the Good News is proclaimed, what she has done will be told also, in remembrance of her.” (Mk 14:3-9; cf. Mt 26:6-13; Jn 12:1-8)

§ 154. Anointment of Jesus by Mary of Bethany - II

John’s account of the anointment of Jesus by Mary confirms the all-male character of the banquet, in accordance with the custom of the day, for it states that Lazarus (brother of Martha and Mary) was at table, and that Martha, as usual, served. (See § 151 for an analysis of the significance of the word “served,” diekonei, used here.) Also as usual, Mary did not serve but related to Jesus in a very special way, both poignantly personal and “transcendent,” apparently oblivious of, or disregarding, her intrusion into a male sanctum, probably because she knew from experience that Jesus would support her-which he did.

Six days before the Passover, Jesus went to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom he had raised from the dead. They gave a dinner for him there; Martha waited on them and Lazarus was among those at table. Mary brought in a pound of very costly ointment, pure nard, and with it anointed the feet of Jesus, wiping them with her hair; the house was full of the scent of the ointment. Then Judas Iscariot-one of the disciples, the man who was to betray him-said, “Why wasn’t this ointment sold for three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor?” He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he was in charge of the common fund and used to help himself to the contributions. So Jesus said, “Leave her alone; she had to keep this scent for the day of my burial. You have the poor with always, you will not always have me.” (Jn 12:1-8; cf. Mk 14:3-97; Mt 26:6 13

§155. Pilate’s Wife

We know nothing of Pilate’s wife except that she sent a message to her husband in support of Jesus during his trial. As the wife of a Roman procurator of Judea she doubtless was not Jewish but rather a pagan. We have no reason to doubt the historicity of her intervention; in fact elsewhere in the contemporary world there are recorded instances of similar interventions by women. She apparently was so upset by the attempt to destroy Jesus that she had dreamed a bad dream about him. Bad dreams were taken very seriously by most if not all people then, the vast majority being inclined toward superstition. Such a disturbing dream, bringing her to the point of intervening in a public proceeding of the most serious and formal kind (“as he was seated in the chair of judgement”), and of interrupting a husband who was known for his vicious and brutal temper, tells us something about Pilate’s wife and Jesus. Jesus obviously was known to her, and most probably not simply by general, or even detailed, reputation. For her to have become so disturbed as to attempt to interfere in Jesus’ behalf where such a tumult was being raised would make it most likely that she had personally been deeply impressed by Jesus. She would not have been the only woman whom Jesus deeply affected, nor the only pagan-nor indeed the only “Roman” (cf. the centurion from Capernaum, Mt 8:5; and the centurion under the cross, Mt 27:54)-nor the only pagan woman (cf. the Phoenician woman, Mt 15:21-28).

Now as he was seated in the chair of judgement, his wife sent him a message, “Have nothing to do with that man; I have been upset all day by a dream I had about him.” (Mt 27:19)

§156. Jerusalem Women on the Via Dolorosa

Luke, again, is the only one of the Gospel writers who mentions the women of Jerusalem meeting Jesus as he was carrying his cross to the place of execution. He records that they mourned and cried for him. The Talmud notes that the noble women used to prepare a soothing drink for the condemned, but that is far different from what is described by Luke. These women clearly must have been devoted followers of Jesus who were overwhelmed with grief. They are a group distinct from the “large numbers of people” who followed Jesus; the Greek makes it clear that only the women were said to mourn and lament for Jesus. They obviously responded with a profound attachment to this Jesus who had taught them. Nowhere in any of the Gospels is there a similar report of a group of male followers of Jesus lamenting for him publicly or risking their limbs and lives by meeting and mourning for him in the open. Jesus’ response was typical in that he showed greater concern for them than for himself. Luke would have him speak with foreknowledge of the coming destruction of Jerusalem (A.D. 70); hence most scholars bold that these specific words were provided by the evangelist, though with a historical basis.

As they were leading him away they seized on a man, Simon from Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and made him shoulder the cross and carry it behind Jesus. Large numbers of people followed him, and of women too, who mourned and lamented for him. But Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep rather for yourselves and for your children. For the days will surely come when people will say, ‘Happy are those who are barren, the wombs that have never borne, the breasts that have never suckled!’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us!’; to the hills, ‘Cover us!’ For if men use the green wood like this, what will happen when it is dry?” Now with him they were also leading out two other criminals to be executed. (Lk 23:26-32)

§157. Only Women Remain by Jesus Through His Death

It should first be noted that there is no record of any women seeking the death of Jesus; all those in any way involved in promoting Jesus’ death are men. Such noninvolvement of women in the violent death of others was by no means a foregone conclusion in Jewish tradition: cf. Deborah, Jael, Esther, Judith, Salome.

On the positive side, the response of the women disciples to Jesus was extraordinary. He taught and fought for them and they responded by following him to his bitter end, even at risk to their own limb and life. All Jesus’ male disciples deserted him: “Then all the disciples deserted him and ran away” (Mt 26:56); “And they all deserted him and ran away” (Mk 14:49). Luke, almost certainly a later Gospel than Mark and perhaps also Matthew, says that “those who knew” Jesus stood afar and watched the crucifixion. John, which is the latest of all the Gospels, places “the disciple Jesus loved,” traditionally thought to be John the Apostle, below the cross with women. Many scholars believe that both Luke and John here contain unhistorical additions to the Mark and Matthew report. Following this historical judgment, and Mark and Matthew, we have to conclude that only the women stayed with Jesus in his moment of despair and humiliation.

(1) There were some women watching from a distance. Among them were Mary of Magdala, Mary who was the mother of James the younger and Joset, and Salome. These used to follow him and minister to him when he was in Galilee. And there were many other women there who had come up to Jerusalem with him. (Mk 15:40-41)

(2) And many women were there, watching from a distance, the same women who had followed Jesus from Galilee and ministered to him. Among them were Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons. (Mt 27:55-56)

(3) All those who knew him stood at a distance; so also did the women who had accompanied him from Galilee, and they saw all this happen. (Lk 23:49)

(4) Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. Seeing his mother and the disciple he loved standing near her, Jesus said to his mother, “Woman, this is your son.” Then to the disciple he said, “This is your mother.” And from that moment the disciple made a place for her in his home. (Jn 19:25-27)

§158. Women Witness the Burial of Jesus

The women disciples of Jesus remained by him through his death and also his burial-when all was despair. All three of the Synoptic Gospels report the presence of the women at the burial of Jesus. Joseph of Arimathaea and, probably, Nicodemus were members of the Council which participated in the trial of Jesus. Hence they had the political weight to obtain Jesus’ body. Except for them, apparently only the women disciples were present for the burial-faithful to the end.

(1) It was now evening, and since it was Preparation Day (that is, the vigil of the sabbath), there came Joseph of Arimathaea, a prominent member of the Council, who himself lived in the hope of seeing the reign of God, and he boldly went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Pilate, astonished that he should have died so soon, summoned the centurion and enquired if he was already dead. Having been assured of this by the centurion, he granted the corpse to Joseph who bought a shroud, took Jesus down from the cross, wrapped him in the shroud and laid him in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the entrance to the tomb. Mary of Magdala and Mary the mother of Joset were watching and took note of where he was laid. (Mk 15:42-47)

(2) When it was evening, there came a rich man of Arimathaea, called Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Pilate thereupon ordered it to be handed over. So Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean shroud and put it in his own new tomb which he had hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a large stone across the entrance of the tomb and went away. Now Mary of Magdala and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the sepulchre. (Mt 27:57-61)

(3) Then a member of the council arrived, an upright and virtuous man named Joseph. He had not consented to what the others had planned and carried out. He came from Arimathaea, a Jewish town, and he lived in the hope of seeing the reign of God. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. He then took it down, wrapped it in a shroud and put him in a tomb which was hewn in stone in which no one had yet been laid. It was Preparation Day and the sabbath was imminent. Meanwhile the women who had come from Galilee with Jesus were following behind.... They returned and prepared spices and ointments. And on the sabbath day they rested, as the Law required. (Lk 23:50-56)

§159. Empty Tomb - I

Perhaps because the women disciples followed Jesus to his bitter end on the cross and his burial and came back to his grave after the Sabbath, they were privileged to be the first witnesses to the empty tomb and first appearances of the “resurrected one.” This last element doubtless helps explain the prominent place women held in the early Christian community. Though their testimony was then rejected by the male disciples (according to the Jewish custom of the time, which did not allow women to bear witness), all four evangelists record the women’s witness to the risen Jesus and/or the empty tomb as primary, obviously reflecting the consensuses of the different primitive Christian communities in the midst of which they wrote their Gospels. But because these traditions differed in the details of how the witnessing of the women took place, it will be helpful to look at each one.

§ 160. Empty Tomb - II

The account by Mark is probably the earliest, but somehow the original ending of the Gospel after Mk 16:8 probably has been lost and the story is incomplete, e.g., the women are silent after witnessing the empty tomb (see §182 for a discussion of this problem).

When the sabbath was over, Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices with which to go and anoint him. And very early in the morning on the first day of the week they went to the tomb, just as the sun was rising.

They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” But when they looked they could see that the stone-which was very big-had already been rolled back. On entering the tomb they saw a young man in a white robe seated on the right-hand side, and they were struck with amazement. But be said to them, “There is no need for alarm. You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified: he has risen, he is not here. See, here is the place where they laid him. But you must go and tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going before you to Galilee; it is there you will see him, just as he told you.’” And the women came out and ran away from the tomb because they were frightened out of their wits; and they said nothing to a soul, for they were afraid. (Mk 16:1-8)

§ 161. Empty Tomb - III

In Matthew’s account, perhaps the second oldest Gospel, the women are commissioned by an angel to give witness to the male disciples that Jesus had risen. Thus in a basic sense they were “apostles,” ones sent (apostoloi) to bear witness to the resurrection.

After the sabbath, and towards dawn on the first day of the week, Mary of Magdala and the other Mary went to visit the sepulchre. And all at once there was a violent earthquake, for the angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled away the stone and sat on it. His face was like lightning, his robe white as snow. The guards were so shaken, so frightened of him, that they were like dead men. But the angel spoke; and he said to the women, “There is no need for you to be afraid. I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said he would. Come and see the place where he lay, then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has risen from the dead and now he is going before you to Galilee; it is there you will see him.’ Now I have told you.” Filled with awe and great joy the women came quickly away from the tomb and ran to tell the disciples. (Mt 28:1-8)

§ 162. Empty Tomb - IV

The third account, by Luke, not only describes the women reporting what they had seen and heard to the male disciples, but, in customary fashion, being disbelieved by them.

On the first day of the week, at the first sign of dawn, they went to the tomb with the spices they had prepared. They found that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb, but on entering discovered that the body of the Lord Jesus was not there. As they stood there not knowing what to think, two men in brilliant clothes suddenly appeared at their side. Terrified, the women lowered their eyes. But the two men said to them, “Why look among the dead for someone who is alive? He is not here; he has risen. Remember what he told you when he was still in Galilee: that the Son of Man had to be handed over into the power of sinful men and be crucified, and rise again on the third day?” And they remembered his words.

When the women returned from the tomb they told all this to the Eleven and to all the others. The women were Mary of Magdala, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James. The other women with them also told the apostles, but this story of theirs seemed pure nonsense, and they did not believe them.

Peter, however, went running to the tomb. He bent down and saw the binding cloths but nothing else; he then went back home, amazed at what had happened. (Lk 24:1-12)

§ 163. Empty Tomb - V

John the Evangelist, writing considerably later than the other three Gospel writers, describes only Mary Magdalene’s visit to the tomb and her report to the male disciples. Though he does not say explicitly, as does Luke, that they disbelieved her, their actions would fit within that assumption.

It was very early on the first day of the week and still dark, when Mary of Magdala came to the tomb. She saw that the stone had been moved away from the tomb and came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb,” she said, “and we don’t know where they have put him.”

So Peter set out with the other disciple to go to the tomb They ran together, but the other disciple, running faster than Peter, reached the tomb first; he bent down and saw the linen cloths lying on the ground, but did not go in. Simon Peter who was following now came up, went right into the tomb, saw the linen cloths on the ground, and also the cloth that had been over his head; this was not with the linen cloths but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple who had reached the tomb first also went in; he saw and be believed. Till this moment they had failed to understand the teaching of scripture, that he must rise from the dead. The disciples then went home again. (Jn 20:1-10)

§ 164. The Risen Jesus and Women - I

Three of the four Gospels report that the first appearance of the risen Jesus was to Mary Magdalene, or to a group of women disciples, in addition to the women’s being the first witnesses of the empty tomb and the speech and commission by an angel or angels to witness to the resurrection. Writing before any of the evangelists, Paul in 1 Cor 15.5-8 described five of the appearances of the risen Jesus, “that he appeared first to Cephas (Peter) and secondly to the Twelve.” Nowhere does Paul refer to Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene or the other women disciples. Could this be a reflection of the Jewish custom of disallowing the testimony of women, manifested by the Pharisee Paul and not yet counteracted by the women disciples through the oral traditions that fed three of the Gospel writers?

§ 165. The Risen Jesus and Women - II

In any case it is “the gospel truth” that the risen Jesus appeared first to a woman. The earliest Gospel, Mark, records the appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene, but that whole final section (Mk 16:9-20) is universally held by scholars not to have been written by the author of the Gospel of Mark, but rather added later, perhaps in the second century. As it stands, the Gospel of Mark reports simply that Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene and also that the male disciples refused to believe her-which a woman might have expected.

Having risen in the morning on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary of Magdala from whom he had cast out seven devils. She then went to those who had been his companions, and who were mourning and in tears, and told them. But they did not believe her when they heard her say that he was alive and that she had seen him. (Mk 16:9-11)

§ 166. The Risen Jesus and Women - III

According to Matthew, Jesus appeared first to Mary Madgalene and “the other Mary.” He gives more concrete details and a commission by Jesus to “go and tell my brothers” about the resurrection; they, women, were being “sent” (apostellein) by Jesus to men, to the male disciples, to bear witness (despite women’s inability in Jewish law) to the resurrection-in a word, women were made “apostles” by Jesus.

Filled with awe and great joy the women came quickly away from the tomb and ran to tell the disciples.

And there, coming to meet them, was Jesus. “Greetings,” he said. And the women came up to him and, falling down before him, clasped his feet. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers that they must leave for Galilee; they will see me there.” (Mt 28:8-10)

§ 167. The Risen Jesus and Women - IV

John, the last Gospel writer, is the most detailed, and touching, in his description of Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene. She obviously had a deep affection for Jesus: he had cured her and she followed him throughout Galilee and down to Jerusalem, “ministering” (diekonoun) to him; she stayed by him through his bitter death (which, according to some Gospel accounts, the male disciples did not do), attended his burial, returned to his tomb to mourn, “weeping”; when she recognized him she threw her arms around his feet and called him “rabbi,” teacher. Jesus reciprocated by appearing to her first of all; after addressing her as “woman,” a frequent form of address, he called her by her proper name, Mary; he commissioned her “to go to the brothers and tell them” of his resurrection, commissioning her as an “apostle to the apostles”-in that sense, the “first of the apostles!”

Meanwhile Mary stayed outside near the tomb, weeping. Then, still weeping, she stooped to look inside, and saw two angels in white sitting where the body