I’m continuing my way through Tikva Frymer-Kensky’s In the Wake of the Goddesses: Women, Culture, and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth.
In my reading today, Frymer-Kensky attempted to characterize the treatment of women in the Hebrew Bible. I found her discussion to be quite balanced, such that, if I ever teach on this topic, I will assign it to my students to read. Frymer-Kensky essentially acknowledges that women are second-class citizens in the Hebrew Bible, and yet she notes many examples in which they are far from being passive doormats, since they assert themselves and sometimes hold official positions of influence. She says that, while women were subservient according to the Hebrew Bible, men were not believed to have absolute authority over women, for there is no law in the Torah punishing women who do not submit (whereas Middle Assyrian Laws permit a husband to beat his wife), plus authorities in general were held in the Hebrew Bible to be limited by principles of justice. In terms of how ancient Israel and the Hebrew Bible compare with other ancient Near Eastern nations, my impression is that Frymer-Kensky believes there was overlap, since other nations subordinated women yet also recognized their inner qualities, and yet women in the Hebrew Bible are not portrayed as naturally different from man. The Epic of Gilgamesh says that Gilgamesh was given a man for company, and another legend affirms that the troublesome goddess Ishtar was given a female, the assumption apparently being that men were similar to men, whereas women were similar to women. Genesis 2, by contrast, says that God gave man a woman as a helper, implying that it does not view men and women as radically different.
Frymer-Kensky also discusses how the Hebrew Bible compensated for its lack of goddesses, or other gods. Whereas ancient Mesopotamia believed that people had parental sorts of gods (so much for the evangelical argument I’ve heard that claims that only Christianity calls a divine being a “father”) who interceded for them before higher gods, the Hebrew Bible did not have that, and so it presents other intercessors. Jeremiah 31:15, for example, portrays Rachel weeping for her children. Frymer-Kensky states that having to maintain prosperity by obeying commands proved to be a burden, and so some relied on the unconditional love of Rachel for her children. Another way many ancient Israelites dealt with the burden was through fertility figurines. Frymer-Kensky does not appear to view these as goddesses or the Asherah because Israelites did not name their children in reference to the Asherah, plus these figurines show up alone and not as part of a couple, showing they were not seen as God’s consort. Rather, for Frymer-Kensky, they were simply fertility charms.
Another change that (according to Frymer-Kensky) the Hebrew Bible ushered in was that the roles of gods (politics, hierarchy, and law) in Mesopotamia were ascribed to God, whereas the roles of goddesses (storage, administration, lamentation, song, and wisdom-writing) were viewed as “entirely within the domain of humankind”. In my opinion, Frymer-Kensky presents a solid case that the Hebrew Bible sees culture as human, not divine, in origin, unlike other ancient Near Eastern countries. At the same time, I think that, say, Joseph’s talent of storage and administration was believed to be from God or gods, for Pharaoh in Genesis 41:38 appoints Joseph because Joseph demonstrated he had the spirit of God (or gods) within him. Another difference Frymer-Kensky discusses pertains to sex: Whereas the gods of pagan religions had sex, the God of the Hebrew Bible stays away from sex. As a matter of fact, there are laws in the Torah designed to keep sex away from the realm of the sacred.
Sumerians believed that the realm of the gods overlapped in some sense with the human realm. For example, Frymer-Kensky argues that the goddesses reflected how the Sumerians believed women should act. By contrast, in the Hebrew Bible, God does not even keep all of the rules that God prescribes for Israel. Israelites are not allowed to remarry after a divorce, but Jeremiah says that God will do precisely that with God’s wife, Israel. God marries two sisters (Israel and Judah), which Israelites are banned from doing. God and Israel will marry Zion, when Israelite fathers and sons are prohibited from sleeping with the same woman. Human courts cannot punish children for the sins of their parents, but God can. God, in the Hebrew Bible, has special prerogatives.
There were other interesting details in my reading for today: David in I Samuel 25 takes an oath to slaughter Nabal and his men, but Nabal’s wife, Abigail, dissuades David from this course of action, and assumes on herself any negative consequences that might arise (perhaps from God) from David breaking his oath; Frymer-Kensky translates Exodus 1:19 to mean that the midwives are telling the Pharaoh that the Hebrew women are animals, in an attempt to make him think they share his contempt for the Hebrews; and God, perhaps to keep peace in the household, tells Abraham in Genesis 18 that Sarah said she was old, when actually she said Abraham was old.