Since this is Good Friday, I think I'll write today about women in the christian bible. I'd like to write about women and other religions another time, but I have to do a bit more research on a couple of religions to make sure I've got my stuff straight. I know christianity, since I was raised on it, so I'll start with that.
well, if we start at the beginning, we start at Genesis. After god created the heavens and the earth and all that was in it, he decided there should be a keeper of the earth, so he created humans. It is believed that there are five authors of the old testament of the bible, because throughout, you can see differing styles of writing/storytelling. In Genesis, there are two different accounts of the creation story, written by two different authors. One tells the story of Adam being created first, then Eve being created out of one of Adam's ribs. The other says man and woman were created together. It is the first account that is more well-known, and has been used for centuries to relegate women to the status of "sexond sex" (a term coined by the brilliant feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir). Once Adam and Eve were around, they were told not to eat the fruit from one tree in Eden, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Then one day, as the story goes, a serpent slithered along and began chatting with Eve, and convinced her that the fruit from this tree would make her and Adam like gods and she really should try it and give some to Adam, because god was just being selfish. So, she did. and then it all went downhill. They began to feel shame, and tried to hide themselves from god, who knew something was up and asked Adam what happened. Adam told god that "the woman you gave to be with me gave me the fruit and I ate." This statement is dual-purpose: it established Eve's purpose for existence as relational to Adam, and it blamed Eve fully for The Fall – human kind's fall from the good graces of god into a life of sin and the fate of death, responsible for death and suffering.This story, by the way, is not new. Remember Pandora, who opened that fateful box and unleashed pain, suffering, and disease onto the earth, and then was blamed forever for all the world's problems? and the Blackfoot Indians tell of Feather-woman, who dug up the Great Turnip and unleashed all kinds of bad problems, and was cast out of Sky-Country as a result. And then there's the hebrew legend of Lilith, who was the first woman and Adam's first wife. She refused to make love the way Adam wanted, in the traditional missionary style, man on top. She demanded to be treated as Adam's equal, and of course he refused, and Lilith left. As the story goes, she spoke the unspeakable name of god, and was turned into a demon. She was then depicted as a demon who came out at night to drink the blood of infants and women during pregnancy, becoming the first vampire. Woman being blamed for bad stuff isn't unique to christianity, and it certainly doesn't stop with Eve. Let's look a bit further…
Next we have Sarah, the wife of Abraham. The pharoah of Egypt wanted Sarah for himself, because she was so beautiful. (objectifying women began a long time ago.) So Abraham convinced Sarah to pretend she was his sister in order to save his own life, and she was taken as a concubine to the Pharoah. (Nice way to treat your wife.) Later on, they got back together, and Sarah, who was "barren", told Abraham to take her Egyptian slave Hagar as a concubine so he could have an heir. Any child of Hagar's would be considered Sarah's anyway. (See the trading of women here for the purpose of making male heirs?) So Abraham did this, and Hagar became pregnant. Here the story gets interesting – Sarah becomes jealous of Hagar, and Hagar runs away to avoid mistreatment by Sarah (of course she would be jealous of the woman who could fulfill the female purpose better than she could), returning only when god tells her that her son will father many. She has her son, Ishmael, and later on Sarah, who is past the point of childbearing, miraculously has a child, Isaac. God makes Abraham promise to circumcise all the male children of his tribe through Sarah. Sarah gets jealous again, and forces Hagar and Ishmael out of town. Isaac becomes the father of Esau and Jacob, and the Jewish people trace their lineage through him, while the Arab people trace their lineage through Ishmael – both sons of Abraham. (Abraham plasy an important part in Islam as well.)
Jacob, son of Isaac, finds a woman he thinks is very beautiful, but he cannot afford to buy her (!!!!), so he agrees to work for his uncle, Rachel's father, for 7 years to pay for her. Whent he time comes, uncle substitutes his eldest daughter, Leah, and veils her to disguise her identity (presumably she was not as beautiful as Rachel). Jacob still wants to marry Rachel, so he agrees to work for 7 more years to pay for her. Leah bears him 4 sons, and Rachel gets jealous because she is "barren" and offers her slave to Jacob (remember, these kids will be considered hers), who bears him 2 sons. Leah can't seem to conceive anymore, so offers her slave to Jacob, and he fathers 2 more sons, after which Leah gets pregnant again and has 2 sons and 1 daughter. Rachel's infertility is cured and she has 2 sons, but dies giving birth to the second. This story definitely makes it clear that women's purpose is to have children, and preferably sons, and that if they can't, they become very jealous and competitive.
The one daughter, Dinah, has a nasty fate. She is raped. The father of the rapist feels terrible, and offers to have the rapist marry Dinah, and that all the men in the town should be circumcised – displaying their allegiance to Jacob's god, and further allowing intermarriages between the two tribes. Jacob agrees to this – of course, Dinah has no choice but to marry her rapist. Her brothers, however, see things differently and they pillage the city in retribution for their sister's rape. Finally, some sense in the biblical men – not that they do a good thing in pillaging the city, but that they see their sister's rape as a very bad thing!
Much later on, in the book of Judges, we encounter a woman who is NEVER mentioned in bible classes. Her name is Deborah, and she is described as a prophetess, a warrior, and a judge (tribal leader). She forms a massive army and draws up a battle plan against the nasty Canaanites and leads them to battle. The story of Deborah is told in a nice poem, Song of Deborah. How come we don't ever hear about this wonderful female role model?
Judges also tells the story of Samson and Delilah, a much juicier story about a wicked, deceitful, beautiful and seductive woman and a heroicly strong man (think Hercules). Samson has a pact to devote his life to god's service, and in return he is given great strength. The sign of his ongoing pact is that he will not cut his hair. So, Delilah, who has been bribed to find out the secret of Samson's strength, seduces him to find out the secret, and once she does, she has his hair cut in his sleep. Samson loses his strength and is captured, blinded and put to work. Once Samson's hair grows back his strength returns, and he pulls down the temple, killing all inside, including himself (I thought suicide was a bad thing?). Delilah is almost as bad as Jezebel, the queen who makes the worship of Baal commonplace, and which unleashed drought and famine on her people as punishmnet from god. Jezebel did other scheming things, such as arrange for the deaht of a neighbour whose vineyard her husband, king Ahab, wanted. She was cursed by Elijah, prophet of god, to a death involving being eaten by dogs. yikes. No wonder this story is told more widely than that of Deborah – it's way more exciting, and the woman gets her due in the end, proving that women should just be good and keep their mouths shut.
There are two books of the bible named after women. One is Esther, the other is Ruth. Ruth is the great-grandmother to King David, of David and Goliath fame. She gets to take this role because she seduces a man at the behest of her mother-in-law after her husband has died. She is seen as virtuous because of her loyalty to her mother-in-law after the deaht of her own husband. Esther is a Hebrew girl married to the king, and after the king has decrees that all Jewish people in Persia should be killed, she reveals her true identity as a Jew and convinces the king not to go through with it, thus saving all the Jews in the area from certain death. The king decides that Jews should take ervenge on their enemies. Esther's triumph is celebrated in the Jewish festival Purim. So, why don't we hear much about these women?
In the New Testament, there are two women of prominence, but not so much that they had a book named after her: Mary, mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdelene, a figure who is ridiculously controversial. Mary mother of Jesus was impregnated by the holy spirit while she was still a virgin and gave birth to Jesus, son of god (the Virgin Birth, not to be confused with the Immaculate Conception, which holds that Mary was herself conceived without "Original Sin", the taint of sin passed down from human to human that all began with Eve and her fruit. The Immaculate Conception has no biblical reference.). Some christian teachings, again without biblical reference, held that Mary was always a virgin, never having sex with her husband, Joseph, despite the many biblical references to Jesus' brothers and sisters. That was about the extent of her importance in the bible – sorry all you Catholics out there – although she was present at the crucifixion. Poor Mary – used as a vessel to give birth to the all-important Jesus.Mary Magdelene is, as they say, cloaked in controversy. She is said to be an adulterous prostitute, a wanton woman. She has also been construed as lover and wife of Jesus – lately this story has evolved into mother of Jesus' children. Why not, I say – it was very odd at that time in Israel that a man of Jesus' age not be married. In any case, these stories about Mary M are unsubstantiaed. She was described in Luke only as one of seven women whom Jesus healed by casting out demons, and after this, she was a devoted follower of Jesus – not one of the 12 blessed disciples, but a follower. After all, a woman couldn't be a disciple! Mary did, nevertheless, have a special place in Jesus' inner circle, as she was one who tended his body after the crucifixion and to whom Jesus appeared after the resurrection.
Notably, there are many stories in the bible about Jesus speaking to and helping women, even treating women as equal to men. This was very much against the role of women in Jewish society at the time, so Jesus was pretty progressive in this regard. Women were not allowed to go to school, were only allowed to enter the temples to a certain point, were not allowed to participate in religious services, had to cover their heads and shut their mouths in the temple, and were sold into marriage at the age of 13 or so. These traditional roles have relaxed in most religions over the years, but the traditional teachings about women that informed many of the roles women have played symbolically and realistically in the christian churches have had their impact on society and the way women are portrayed even today.
Picture taken from Christian Answers.net