26.  NEGATIVE IMAGES OF WOMEN  IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
                                                  Gen. 3, Hos. 3

                                                                  R.L. Hnuni

Introduction:

    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 women, 
    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  modern women. 

    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 woman. 
    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 death."
    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 die.

    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."

Reflection: 
    In what ways does the understanding of Eve as `temptress' have implications for the role of women in the church and society today?
    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 wall! 
    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.

Re-interpretation:
    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.

Reflection:
    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.

Conclusion:
    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     the Bible?

2.    Looking with new eyes, as women, attempt to     reinterprete these images or stories in ways more     possitive for women.

Endnotes:

1.    Katherine Doob Sakenfeld, “Feminist Uses of Biblical     Materials,” in Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, ed.     Letty M. Russell, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985,
    p. 56-63.
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 Genesis,
    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.
8.    Ibid.
9.    Ibid.
10.    E.g. Gen. 34:31;  38:15;  Jos. 2:1,  Judges 16:1;  1 Kgs.     3:16,  22:28.
11.    Alice C. Laffey,  An Introduction to the Old Testament:     A Feminist Perspective.  Philadelphia: Fortress Press,     1988, p. 169.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Cassuto  U,  A Commentary on the Book of Genesis,
    Part I,  Jerusalem:  The Magnes Press,  1961.
Laffey, Alice C,  An Introduction to the Old Testament: A     Feminist Perspective.  Philadelphia: Fortress Press,     1988.
Mckenzie, John L.  Theological Studies 15/4,  1954.
Newsom, Carol A. & Sharon Ringe,  The Women’s Bible     Commentary,  Louisville: Westminster/John Knox,     1992.
Rad, G. Von,  Genesis: A Commentary.  Philadelphia:     Westminster, 1961.
.Russell, Letty M, ed.,  Feminist Interpretation of the Bible,     Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985,
Ruether, Rosemary R,  Sexism and God-Talk: Towards          Feminist Theology,  Boston: Beacon Press, 1983.
Ruether, Rosemary R., Womanguides: Reading Towards     Feminist Theology.  Boston: Beacon  Press, 1985.