26. NEGATIVE IMAGES OF WOMEN IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
Gen. 3, Hos. 3
Feminist interpretation of the Bible has been
done from various angles with different emphasis. Several of the
most popular are:
1. selecting positive texts about
2. interpreting any texts from
feminist point of view,
3. studying texts about women to
learn from their history and stories that can have meaning for
The topic "Negative Images of Women in the Old
Testament" remains the area that is seldom touched upon and it is a new
approach in doing feminist interpretation of the Bible.
Because the Old Testament describes women in various
ways, both positive and negative, it is difficult to formulate women's
image in a single coherent way. Even though there are good
pictures about women who are in positions of leadership, such as
Miriam, Deborah, the prophet Huldah etc., these women do not represent
the condition of every Israelite woman. Women's subordinate
status is much more prominent than the egalitarian outlook throughout
the Old Testament.
In a number of texts women are pictured in various
negative ways, as mentioned below:
1. Women's biological make up, their capacity to
conceive and give birth, is essential for continuance of the human
race, and hence a blessing from God. Yet the sign of this
capacity, women's regular menstrual periods are regarded as `unclean'
rather than a blessing. Their `unclean period' lasts for seven
days and everything they touch becomes unclean; women remain `unclean'
until they are purified (Lev. 15:19 ff).
2. A `barren' woman is looked on with contempt for no
fault of hers. She is regarded as the one cursed by God; God is
responsible for `closing and opening the womb' of a woman (cf. Gen.
29:31 - 30:24).
3. When Miriam and Aaron are regarded as
transgressors for complaining against Moses' leadership, Miriam but not
Aaron is punished with leprosy and is shut outside the camp for seven
days. She remains there, impure, until Aaron prays for her
healing (Num. 12:1-14).
4. Prophet Amos, who is a prophet of `justice'
addresses the women of Samaria, "cows of Bashan" (Amos 4:1).
5. In Proverbs, negative images of women are far more
abundant than positive ones. A woman is portrayed with various
negative images. For example, a `bad wife' brings `shame and
rottenness' in her husband's bones (Prov. 12:4); she is compared with
`continual dripping on a rainy day" (27:15). The Proverbs do not,
however, mention what it is like to live with a bad man.
6. Though wisdom is personified as `hokma' (with
female gender), it does not mean that Israelites intend to equate
wisdom with woman, nor does it represent high esteem given to a
Since it is not possible to deal with all negative
pictures about women in the Old Testament in detail, I will concentrate
only on two images: woman as temptress and woman as harlot.
1. Eve- the temptress (Genesis 3):
The story of the fall of humankind in Genesis 3
records that Eve, the wife of Adam and the first woman on earth, is the
temptress and originator of evil in the world. With Eve, sin
begins to enter into the world and all other problems connected with
sin come into being. Eve is viewed as the one who brings sin into
the world, but Adam, who is equally guilty of disobeying the command
which he receives directly from God, is never blamed for the fall of
humankind and subsequent evils in the world. Woman alone receives
the blame for originating sin in the world.
There is another version of the story in which woman
is blamed for bringing evil in the world, a Jewish folktale in which
Adam has a first wife whose name is Lilith. She is created out of
the ground like Adam, not from his rib and therefore, she claims
equality with Adam. But Adam denies her claim and wants to
subordinate her and keep her under his control. The Rabbinic
interpreters of the story of Lilith and Adam see Lilith as a rebellious
wife who refuses to submit to the authority of her husband and flies
off into the desert. She is regarded as the source of all evils
in the world.
According to these two Jewish myths, the first
woman, be it Lilith or Eve, is seen as the enemy of harmony, well
ordered life and peace. She is the source of all evils, the
originator of sin in the world. This negative understanding of
the woman, particularly Eve, is presented in the words of some
prominent male scholars. The Jewish commentator, Cassuto,
maintains that the serpent too is female and the cunning of the serpent
is in reality the cunning of the woman. The German Old Testament
scholar, claims that women confront the allurements and mysteries that
beset our limited life more directly than men do, and therefore, woman
is a temptress. Mckenzie connects woman's moral weakness with her
sexual attraction and holds that the latter ruined both the woman and
the man. Thus, male interpreters understand woman as responsible
not only for the origin of evil in the world, but makes female "to
represent the qualities of materiality, irrationality, carnality and
finitude, which debase the manly spirit and drag it down into sin and
The presentation of Eve as temptress reflects the
anti-female bias of Israelite men, including the Old Testament
writers. This Jewish concept of the female genesis of evil is
inherited by Christians, right from the beginning of Christianity, and
handed down through the centuries. The first century Latin Church
leader Tertullian's expression clearly shows the early Christian
leader's understanding of Eve as the source of evil:
You are the Devil's gateway. You are the unsealer of that
forbidden tree. You are the first deserter of the divine
law. You are she who persuaded him whom the Devil was not valiant
enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God's image man.
On account of your desert, that is death, even the Son of God had to
The negative picture of Eve as a temptress and
origin of evil has been firmly inculcated in the minds of men and
women. Right from childhood Christians are told the story with
the negative image of Eve and they grow up with this lasting negative
impression. Till today men often blame women for whatever
mistakes they make as imitators of Eve their ancestor. As
Rosemary R. Ruether concludes, "the scapegoating of Eve as the cause of
the fall of Adam makes all women, as her daughters, guilty for the
radical impotence of `man' in the face of evil, which is paid for only
by the death of Christ."
In what ways does the understanding of Eve as
`temptress' have implications for the role of women in the church and
The negative understanding of Eve reinforces the
continued repression and subjugation of women even today, as punishment
for Eve's sin. It is repeated and re-interpreted generation after
generation, to young and old, both male and female, so that the laws
and structures that marginalise women from power roles in the society
are reinforced. I mention two ways in which the negative image of
Eve affects Christians today:
(a) Many men continue to blame women for Eve's
sin. They think that women as a whole are tempters and that if
they are given responsibilities equal to men they will lead men into
sin. In the beginning of Christianity in Mizoram, both women and
men became Christians and church members. But, in the church,
women were made to sit facing the side wall, while men sat facing
towards the pulpit side. The reason was if women sat facing the
front side as men, they would tempt men to commit adultery. They
understood the words of Jesus in a literal sense, ".... everyone who
looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in
his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin tear it out and
throw it away ...." (Mt. 5: 27, 28). If men and women sat facing the
same side it was easy to look at each other. Women alone were
held responsible and so they were made to sit facing the side
When I applied to the Church for sponsorship to do
the B.D. course, one of the church leaders said to me, "I hope you do
not lead menfolks into temptation." This reflects the attitude of
many male church leaders who think that when women are involved in
ministry, there are more problems and hence the best way to prevent the
problems is not to involve them in ministry.
(b) Many women too have the self understanding and
acceptance that they are causers of trouble, as accused by
menfolks. Even if they do not accept the ideology that blames
women as tempters, they become so timid and think that they are not fit
for anything except for the traditional roles at home.
In view of women's continued suffering,
reinterpretation of the text is necessary. The text has to be
released from the traditional understanding of "Eve the temptress" to
"Eve the liberator." Jewish feminists have reinterpreted
Lilith not as a disobedient source of evil and a demonic woman, as male
commentators do. Rather she is seen as a liberated woman, who
acts freely and independently of her husband, one who dares to break
the man-made barrier in order that humans can live together in peace
and harmony. It is Adam who is threatened by this egalitarian
relationship and causes Lilith to fly away. Likewise, we should
interpret Eve as a model of liberation whose action represents
liberating knowledge and wisdom from male autocratic control. It
is not Yahweh, but autocratic male rules and leaders, who withhold
wisdom and knowledge from the poor people and from women and keep them
ignorant and under male control. Eve does not accept human rules,
which are imposed as God's regulation. She is the person who,
like Lilith, acts independently without consulting her husband and is
fully aware of the reason for her action.
2. Woman as Harlot:
Woman as harlot presents another negative image
about women in the Old Testament. Though woman is frequently
described as harlot, man is never described as harlot. This
is clearly evident by the Hebrew terms for harlotry (zenuth) and harlot
(zonah) which connote only females. There is no male term for
harlot in Hebrew. This shows the negative male attitude
towards female sexuality.
Numerous passages of the Old Testament refer to
women as harlots. Warnings against `loose women' or `harlots'
(strange women) are frequent in Proverbs, especially 1-9. In
prophetic writings the identification of women as `unfaithful,'
`apostate,' or `harlot' becomes so frequent that more than two thirds
of the occurrences of harlot/harlotry (zonah/zenuth) are found in the
prophets. Among these one of the most notable figures is Gomer, a
harlot whom God asks the prophet Hosea to marry. The question of
whether Gomer is a real person or fictitious is not our concern.
But what is clear is the writer uses a metaphor of marriage with a
harlot to describe Israel's idolatrous relationship with Yahweh.
Their children represent God's attitude towards Israel. God asks
Hosea to again love an adulteress (Hos. 3); whether this woman refers
to Gomer or another woman is not clear.
The positive role of the male (Yahweh/Hosea) in
relationship to the female (Israel/Gomer) is evident throughout Hosea
1-3. This symbolism of the hierarchical relationship has been one
of the most damaging images to women in the entire Old Testament.
Perhaps more than any other, this hierarchy has served to legitimate
sexual discrimination, and its implications continue to permeate a
large segment of Christian theology.
In what ways does the biblical presentation of women
as `harlots' have a negative impact on women in our society today?
It may be difficult to see how the biblical
presentation of women as `harlots' in the Old Testament has a negative
impact upon women today. However, it may be said that the
patriarchal Old Testament culture that treats women as `sinners' and
links sin and sexuality affirms and reinforces the attitude of men in
all other patriarchal cultures and societies. Even in India
(where Christians are less than 3 %), the stereotype of Eve as sexual
temptress is common, legitimating the widespread male practice of
sexual harrassment, popularly known as “eve teasing.”
"Harlotry" cannot be played by women alone without
men, but men are never described as harlots. Women alone cannot
commit adultery without men, but the Jewish leaders brought only the
woman caught in adultery, not her partner, to Jesus to be stoned to
death. This is true with our society today. Among many
communities, in Mizo society in particular, men are not ashamed of
having sexual relations, rather they are proud to be able to win over a
woman, while a woman gets a bad name even to the extent that it is
difficult to find a suitable life-partner. Her reputation is so
tarnished that she is not given the responsibility she would have been
given had she not had sexual relations.
Thus it may be said that the biblical presentation
of women as `harlots' gives support to the traditional understanding of
women as `sinners.’ Women get a bad name when they commit
immorality along with men, while the latter do not get a bad reputation
for the same action. Women have to submit meekly to this
ideology, which binds them and marginalizes them.
Jesus' attitude towards women in general, and
particularly to the Samaritan woman who was called a `sinner' (John 4),
to an unidentified woman who was also called a `sinner' (Lk. 7:37), and
to the woman accused of adultery (John 8), has turned the patriarchal
value system upside down. Women have found the courage to speak
on their own behalf and on behalf those who are condemned, marginalised
and oppressed. They have Jesus' endorsement to speak for
themselves for the wrongs inflicted upon them. In Christ, women
can play equal roles with men in the church and society. It is
our theological and ethical task, as men and women, to redefine
man-woman relationships, no longer in terms of superiority and
inferiority nor in terms of one (man) holy and the other (woman) unholy
and sinner, but in ways that women's full humanity and experience is
recognized, affirmed, and encouraged to develop and grow.
Questions for Discussion:
1. Can you think of more negative images of women in
2. Looking with new eyes, as women, attempt to
reinterprete these images or stories in ways more
possitive for women.
1. Katherine Doob Sakenfeld, “Feminist Uses of
Biblical Materials,” in Feminist Interpretation of
the Bible, ed. Letty M. Russell, Oxford: Basil
2. Adapted from Rosemary R. Ruether, Womanguides:
Reading Towards Feminist Theology. Boston:
Beacon Press, 1985, p. 71.
3. U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of
Part I, Jerusalem: The Magnes
Press, 1961, p. 142.
4. G. Von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary.
Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961, pp. 87-88.
5. John L. Mckenzie, “The Literary
Characteristics of Genesis 2-3,” Theological
Studies, 15/4, 1954, p. 570.
6. Rosemary R.Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk: Towards
Feminist Theology, Boston: Beacon Press,
1983, p. 169.
7. De Cult, Fern 1.1. Cited by Rosemary
R. Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk, p. 167.
10. E.g. Gen. 34:31; 38:15; Jos.
2:1, Judges 16:1; 1 Kgs. 3:16,
11. Alice C. Laffey, An Introduction to the Old
Testament: A Feminist Perspective.
Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988, p. 169.
Cassuto U, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis,
Part I, Jerusalem: The Magnes
Laffey, Alice C, An Introduction to the Old Testament: A
Feminist Perspective. Philadelphia: Fortress
Mckenzie, John L. Theological Studies 15/4, 1954.
Newsom, Carol A. & Sharon Ringe, The Women’s Bible
Commentary, Louisville: Westminster/John Knox,
Rad, G. Von, Genesis: A Commentary. Philadelphia:
.Russell, Letty M, ed., Feminist Interpretation of the Bible,
Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985,
Ruether, Rosemary R, Sexism and God-Talk: Towards
Boston: Beacon Press, 1983.
Ruether, Rosemary R., Womanguides: Reading Towards
Feminist Theology. Boston: Beacon Press, 1985.